Thursday, 3 May 2007

Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen, May 3, 2007

Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen
adapted by Louis Nowra and May-Brit Akerholt
The Branch Theatre Co.
Theatreworks,  May3 to 2, 2007

Reviewer: Kate Herbert on May 3, 2007

Henrik Ibsen’s classic, Ghosts, directed by Melanie Beddie, is imbued with a ghastly atmosphere of dread and entrapment. 

From the outset we feel that something is very wrong in this late 19th century Norwegian manor house. Each character is haunted by not merely the dead but by the oppressive ideas, restrictive morality and social obligations of a rigid Norwegian society.

The play was controversial in its time because of its allusions to births out of wedlock, venereal disease and incest.

Mrs. Alving (Andrea Swifte) is about to open an orphanage to commemorate the ten-year anniversary of her husband, Captain Alving’s death. Alving’s philandering and dissolute life was hidden beneath his respectable public reputation. She hopes for a happier future with the long-awaited return from Paris of her son, Osvald (Jay Bowen), an artist who has lost his creative spark.

The formality of the complex relationships in Ghosts is maintained, but this Australian adaptation allows a contemporary audience access to the language, ideas and characters despite its central issues being no longer taboo.

Beddie places the characters in a stark and forbidding set (Emily Barrie), a modern gothic construction of white beams and near-opaque plastic walls smeared with white and evocatively lit (Richard Vabre). The inhospitable room floats in the centre of a cavernous black space, allowing characters to appear from darkened corners or to sit upstage, being barely visible behind transparent walls.

The spectre of Captain Alving looms above them, a projected image of a stern 19th century portrait, a palpable and threatening influence.

The cast is accomplished. Swifte plays Mrs. Alving with tragic dignity and a melancholy resignation. James Wardlaw amuses and irritates in turn as the absurdly supercilious Pastor Manders, the narrow-minded country vicar with rigid morality. Bowen vibrates with despair and frustration as Osvald coping with an insidious disease - his father’s bequest.

Ming-Zhu Hii, plays Regina, Mrs. Alving’s cherished maidservant, with perhaps too much sophistication for such an ingĂ©nue but her cheerful youth and sensuality are engaging. Bruce Myles is memorable as the carpenter, Engstrand, Regina’s grimy, self-serving and degenerate father. Myles captures Engstrand’s manipulative and obsequious nature in a masterly, understated style. Engstrand is the only winner in the story.

There is an atmosphere of impending doom and melancholia in Ibsen’s play, a volatility and unpredictability that draws us toward its inevitably tragic finale.

By Kate Herbert

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