Venue: The Depot Theatre (Marrickville NSW), Oct 7 – 24, 2015
Playwright: Henrik Ibsen
Director: Julie Baz
Cast: Julie Baz, David Jeffrey, Emily McGowan, Zac McKay, Steve Vincent
Themes in Henrik Ibsen’s 1881 play Ghosts remain controversial. We continue to debate over religion, venereal disease, incest and euthanasia; each subject is a divisive one, and placing them all in a play for the 19th century, must have given it an explosive edge. By today’s standards however, its very subtle language communicates obtusely. Measured insinuations for delicate sensibilities of a time past are predictably no longer effective in the same way. We require much more obvious dialogue to evoke a level of drama that would correspond with the issues being explored. Ibsen’s writing is beautiful, but presenting it on a contemporary stage requires extensive adaptation, if not of its words, then all the other visual and aural symbols need to find a way to excite us, or at least introduce a greater sense of intrigue. There is much to engage us in the story of Ghosts, but conveying its ideas so many years later is certainly challenging.
Performances are at best, uneven in this production. Characters are depicted with insufficient depth, and actors are unable to express complexity within their roles. There is very little variation in tone and temperament, creating an impression of oversimplification and therefore, our understanding of their narratives become surface. We try to relate to their humanity but struggle to find points of connection. Steve Vincent is an intense Oswald, injecting energy into an oft too placid atmosphere, but his approach requires greater nuance. Zac McKay’s ability to create an air of foreboding and his daring gestures suggesting illicit sexuality, are some of the more theatrical moments of the show, but the role of Jacob Engstrand is a small one. Director Julie Baz keeps the pace tight, and volume levels high, but her show is not finely detailed, and although we see the big picture, much of the undercurrent goings on are lost.
Ghosts talks about things that haunt us, and the things we inherit. It is about the past, and how we negotiate their restraints as we try to move forward. Australian art is full of ghosts, and European masters like Ibsen have an influence over our artistic landscape, the nature of which is probably best described as a love-hate relationship. It gives us a context with which we can have an international voice that facilitates exchanges with cultural capitals of the world, but it also holds us back with yardsticks that are multifariously archaic. In the making of art, we cannot forget those that have come before, but we must remember that our trajectories can only move to the future.