Ibsen’s Ghosts was shocking in its day. Its treatment of incest, extramarital affairs, blasphemy and inherited venereal disease tackled the less palatable side of life. There are pages and pages of scathing reviews written by critics appalled that Ibsen had the nerve to put these things onstage. Things which were largely unspoken. It was labelled “dull and disgusting”, “foul and filthy”, “nauseating”, “blasphemous”, “morbid”, “nasty”, “abominable”, and the list goes on.
So maybe that’s why director Gale Edwards has chosen to turn the volume nob up to eleven in every scene of her production. Maybe it’s some attempt to give the audience an experience similar to what audiences would have experienced in the late 1800s, by constantly raising the dramatic stakes.
But the problem with pitching every scene at such an impossibly high level, is that it eventually just feels like it’s flat-lining. From the opening scene between Regina (Pip Edwards) and her father (Richard Piper), every line of dialogue is given the dramatic force of a hurricane.
Edwards has many fans as a director (and I generally count myself as one), but nuance isn’t her greatest strength. She usually cuts to the core of a work and then speaks as directly to that core as possible, with bold directorial choices. But in a work that’s so much about subtext, the Edwards approach sees everything meld into a single histrionic thread.
The adaptation, also by Edwards, is really a truncated translation. It’s faithful to Ibsen’s work, but condenses the three acts into a single 90-minute act. Ibsen has created a masterpiece of dramatic structure, and the various threads all shine through in the translation. Edwards has eliminated some smaller plot points (for example, Mrs Alving’s motivation for building the orphanage with the money left by her husband), but everything’s largely intact. But for the sake of brevity, and presumably clarity, Edwards makes certain points explicit to her audience, which are spoken around in Ibsen’s text. Ghosts is largely about things which are obscured in polite society, and when the characters onstage state those things so blatantly, there’s no sense that they’re really obscured.
The actors do their best to bring pathos and authenticity, but they’re all up against it. Linda Cropper, as Mrs Alving, is at her best when playing the desperately lonely, devoted and damaged mother, but her scenes with Pastor Manders feel constantly unbalanced. Philip Quast’s Pastor Manders is basically a rehash of his performance as Javert in Les Miserables, but without the depth behind the stuffy discipline. Ben Pfeiffer’s Oswald comes the closest to making psychological sense, and he’s given the most complete arc, but Pip Edwards’ Regina is inconsistent, and none of her motivations are defined. Richard Piper fares best as Jacob Engstrand, but it’s the character with the least complexity.
Shaun Gurton’s set stylishly focuses the action in the Sumner Theatre, which is lit with subtlety by Paul Jackson. With the raked stage of dark, splintered timber reaching all the way to the front rows, Gurton has created a space that makes the expansive Sumner feel as intimate as is possible. When you walk into the theatre and see the set, there’s no indication that you’re about to witness a blowout.
Although Ghosts doesn’t speak directly to the collective social mindset of today, it has deeper resonances in the way that we choose to brush over hard truths, and the “ghosts” of the past that we’re still, inexplicably, holding onto. And it reminds of the power of art to break through and shake up perceptions. MTC’s publicity material says that Ghosts remains unflinchingly shocking today. It’s difficult to imagine anybody would be “shocked” by Ibsen’s work as presented by MTC. Surely it’s time for one of the major theatre companies to give us something that will actually challenge its audience, and risk (heaven, help us!) shocking its subscribers.
Featured image by Jeff Busby