Pamela Rabe stars in Ibsen's tough family drama about history, inheritance and compassion
A play about the dangers of religious conservatism, in these ‘it’s OK to vote no’ times? Belvoir’s production of Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts has a great gift of timing – it’s a play from the 19th century, but it asks tough questions of the church that are timely: is its inflexible morality harmful? Are secrets best kept buried? And how do children cope when they inherit a legacy of corrupt belief and cover-ups from their elders?
We open with Helene (Pamela Rabe), living an almost solitary life on a country estate in Western Norway. She is set to unveil an orphanage in her late husband’s name, with the local clergyman Pastor Manders (Robert Menzies) as her business partner and guide. Conceiving the project as one ‘guided by God’, Manders rebuffs her suggestion that the building be insured; it might look like an absence of faith to do so, he cautions.
While their relationship is of long standing (it’s clear they have a complicated past), Manders has been in the dark about the true nature of Helene’s marriage, which was harrowing and abusive. It was such a fraught household that Helene shipped her son Osvald (Tom Conroy) off to France for his own safety, and it’s only now that her husband has died that she’ll allow him to return. As the play begins, he’s finally arrived home.
However, Helene and Osvald aren’t free of their patriarch just yet. For starters, there’s the matter of Helene’s maid Regine (Taylor Ferguson). Her father Jakob (Colin Moody) – a carpenter with a taste for alcohol – asks her to join him for a new life in the city, but she refuses. She has her eye on Osvald. Their match is, for a lot of reasons (of varying degrees of salaciousness) ill-advised at best and catastrophic at worst, and Helene is at a loss as to how to handle the situation. What’s truly better: to be completely honest, no matter how difficult the truth, and move forward with full knowledge of the past? Or to be ignorant but happy?
Eamon Flack (Belvoir’s artistic director) has adapted the text thoughtfully. Ibsen’s writing is direct and Flack gives it a fresh economy of language, which he generally follows through with his direction, keeping focus on the story rather than on complicated sets and stage magic. This holds the audience at a slight and pleasant distance, which helps us view the twists and turns of the play with empathy but not overwrought sentimentality. This isn’t a melodrama, and most of the time Flack’s production keeps a cool and subtle head. This approach works best in the character of Jakob, whose old boots Moody seems to have lived in for years; his naturalistic, off-the-cuff delivery removes the staginess from the still occasionally stiff, antique dialogue structure.
The exception to this smart and subtle edit is in the crucial final scene. Helene is faced with an impossible choice, and it’s here that Flack’s editing eye has indulged the play and the period’s dated hallmarks: over-long vocal equivocation and repetition, and too-obvious acting when subtlety might have had more impact. It’s a self-conscious scene, and it’s a shame that it’s the one we’re left with.
Still, this is a fine, considered production. The performances are strong across the board but it’s the supporting players who really shine: Ferguson brings spark and depth to a potentially superficial role – her performance of the maid could be stereotypical, but there’s a sense of idiosyncrasy and personality here beyond her apron and script-dictated good looks. Her scenes with Moody feel as intimate and aggravated as any with a family member who makes you uneasy.
Michael Hankin’s set, with leafy potted plants against the walls, and slatted windows to show off pouring rain (recycled water was used), or Nick Schlieper’s sundial lighting, helps us feel at home in this old world. Stefan Gregory’s music is used sparingly, and it works: the most memorable swell accompanies a coup de théâtre in a moment of disaster, but for the bulk of the play we’ve only words. So we listen closely.
The play throws up a few issues, including the notion of living in sin, the duty of a woman to be a wife, and the ethics of assisted suicide; If these issues have been on your mind lately, you’ll likely find some added emotional impact in Pastor Manders’ sermonising – and in Osvald and Helene’s craving to live beyond religious restrictions. Even if you don’t feel that level of relevance, it’s still a lovely, gently updated take on a classic.