When Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts was first performed in London in 1891, the reaction was visceral – ‘putrid’, ‘naked loathsomeness’, ‘repulsive’, ‘revoltingly suggestive and blasphemous’. The Norwegian playwright had hit a nerve, exposing the dark underbelly of family life, stripping away the masks that people wear to protect propriety and reputation.
Fast forward to Melbourne’s Sumner Theatre 2014, the audience reaction related more to the rapid decline into total bleakness and defeat than concerns about venereal disease, moral decay and religious authority.
Many of the concepts explored in this 133-year-old play are still relevant today. Patriarchy, euthanasia and the role of religion (in this case the Church) continue to be in the spotlight. The young in every generation reject the ideas of their parents, and yet the invisible ‘ghosts’ that, through nature or nurture, haunt the very fibre of a home can lead to decay and brokenness.
Philip Quast inhabits Pastor Manders, a priest who knows he is righteous, who believes he has everyone’s best interests at heart and has no hesitation in making his own commanding opinion known. Pastor Manders understands that women are the weaker sex who need to listen to ‘opinions of God-fearing men who bring order to society’ and honour their marital vows.
The fall of Manders is far more subtle than the decline of Helene Alving (Linda Cropper) or her son Oswald (Ben Pfeiffer). Manders has been motivated by propriety and a total unquestioning belief in ‘God-given duty’. However, this strong opinionated man demonstrates no self-awareness or understanding of others. He chooses to see only what is presented, not what might lie beneath.
It is not love or desire that is his downfall. It is fear of loss of reputation. And so he sells his soul to another, the manipulative Jacob Engstrand (Richard Piper), who understands its value.
Director Gale Edwards has adapted the play to fit the current setting, and the original three-act play is presented without interval. Has the adaption or the presentation as a one-act play created the disconnect for the audience, or did Ibsen try to squeeze too many ideas into the one script, leading to a sense of the absurd?
The unfortunate result for the audience is an unsettling feeling of landing in an entirely different play. The tone shifts in the wake of a significant external event and Mrs Alving, who had been considered, reflective and strong turns to dishwater – a stereotype of a mother whose emotions are manipulated by her children. Oswald, her artist son, becomes more melodramatic and caricatured than before. The final scene between mother and son, a potentially harrowing, heartbreaking and intimate conversation becomes almost comical as a result.
Euthanasia is an important topic, but to throw it onto the stage as an hysterical afterthought did not do justice to the theme.
The two women, Helene and Regina Engstrand (Pip Edwards) are presented as strong women who have worked out how best to navigate the patriarchal world they inhabit, but it is still the men in their lives who bring them undone.
The underlying theme of ‘the sins of the father’, which is picked up in the title Ghosts, is certainly worthy of reflection in our own lives.
But as the play makes clear, despite our best intentions, those ghosts do not readily disappear.
By Penny Mulvey
MTC’s Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen, adaption by Gale Edwards, to 21 June, The SumnerTheatre.