For more than two years now there’s been a small but noticeable scribbling in black texta inside one of the men’s cubicles at Belvoir: “The Abbott Govt, against all arts”.
I’ve frequently been surprised to see that the graffiti hasn’t been removed — I’m sure it wouldn’t be too difficult with the right solvent — and have long suspected that the order to leave the message might have come from somebody fairly high up in the theatre company.
Those suspicions only grew when I read the director and adaptor’s note penned by Belvoir’s Artistic Director Eamon Flack for his new production of Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts:
“Ibsen’s play was written and set in 1881. Our production isn’t set in 1881 so much as set now in a room where nothing has changed since 1881. Think of the mind of Tony Abbott. I wouldn’t date it precisely at 1881 but somewhere in that brain is a vortex into a past world where men knew best, marriage was a holy alliance, and the lives of others were to be ruthlessly constrained by the terrified, angry strictures of the faithful. Same with this play.”
I don’t think for a moment that those at Belvoir have anything personally against our former Prime Minister, but he is emblematic of a kind of man — and they are mostly men — who seem to have a strong disdain for any individual or system of thought that challenges their own. Anything that questions the powers of their ideology, or their superiority, is considered terrifying and instantly condemned.
You get the clear impression that, in a different age, Tony Abbott may well have been a man not too dissimilar to Ibsen’s religious hypocrite Pastor Manders (Robert Menzies). Manders is a man ferociously tied to his own ideals and the ideals of the church — except for when it suits him to, um, turn a blind eye.
In Ghosts, we meet him after decades of lecturing and shaping the lives of those good Christians around him, strait-jacketing them into a life that ultimately requires great suffering and deceit.
None of his congregation have come under his rule more strictly than Helene Alving (Pamela Rabe), the wife of a late and pathologically unfaithful husband. She’s been forced to find solutions to the great problems that her husband brought into their household, even if they don’t meet the absolute letter of biblical law.
She and Pastor Manders are collaborating on the final stages of an orphanage built in honour of Captain Alving, and although she’s a prudent and sensible woman who wants to purchase insurance for the building, Manders advises her that it would not be wise. He says it would not show the appropriate faith in God’s ability to protect the orphanage from destruction.
Now Helene’s son Osvald (Tom Conroy) has returned after two years of working as an artist in Paris. Helene has never told him the truth about his father, but now Osvald has his own secret to tell his mother — something that’s been uncovered while he’s been away.
“Although it may have scandalised critics and audiences when it premiered, the play now calls on us to live in a liberated and fearless way”
The design elements in Flack’s production are understated but hugely evocative. Michael Hankin’s set is a picture of European elegance; closed to the outside world and lit moodily by Nick Schlieper. Julie Lynch’s period costumes are beautifully constructed and appropriately constrictive.
But Flack’s is a production that rightly throws the focus onto its superb actors, and the shifting tensions between these characters.
Pamela Rabe dominates the stage in a perfectly judged performance as Helene. She brings to life a woman who has been forced to be much smaller than she is for her entire life, in terms of intellect, spirit, strength and compassion. That tension drives Rabe’s performance.
Helene’s moments of quiet rebellion and defiance are absolutely glorious — she mightn’t scream or shout, but every time she takes a position even slightly contrary to Manders, you almost want to stand up and cheer.
Robert Menzies is a strong match for Rabe and delivers his best performance on a Sydney stage in recent years as Manders. The fear and smallness inside this man is always palpable, but his lifetime in a position of power has made him an imposing presence.
Tom Conroy delivers a deeply textured performance as Osvald, swinging wildly between his desire to seek out the joy of life and his need to stare his own mortality in the face.
Taylor Ferguson and Colin Moody both work against the cliches that can sometimes sneak into portrayals of Regine and Jakob Engstrand, respectively.
Flack’s new adaptation of the text is generally very faithful, shifting a few elements here and there for clarity for a 2017 audience. Flack has clearly put a lot of thought into retaining the dramatic structure and sensitivity, while questioning when the audience should learn key pieces of information, and how much should be explained, and how much left to inference. There are also some modest vernacular updates and cuts that don’t detract anything from the whole.
But there’s not a great deal that Flack needs to do to the script. This is a blisteringly contemporary play that deals with subjects — including venereal disease, extraordinary infidelity, religious hypocrisy, and much more — that can still rankle and make some theatre audiences feel uncomfortable.
That’s not to say that Ibsen was ever aiming for shock factor. Although it may have scandalised critics and audiences when it premiered, the play now calls on us to live in a liberated and fearless way, and to stand up against those who project their own fears of such liberation onto others. No wonder we say those individuals are against the arts.
And in a time when every religious zealot in the country is seeking to publicly dictate who can and cannot be married, this is a particularly resonant piece.
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