MTC's GHOSTS Is A Production Of Restrained Theatricality
For a modern audience, the strength of a classic work can also be its Achilles' heel. So it is with Ibsen's GHOSTS - the 19th Century writer's words are so on point as to feel contemporary, yet this heightened realism also exaggerates any hint of melodrama present on stage.
The Melbourne Theatre Company's first staging of GHOSTS struggles to balance this dichotomy. Under the helm of esteemed director Gale Edwards, the production gives off an air of restrained theatricality for the most part. It's when the choices veer toward unrestrained that the pertinence of Ibsen's message is in danger of being lost on the audience.
Ibsen is considered a pioneer of modernism. His plays highlighted the foibles of the ordinary, at a time when art was still designed to appeal to the better angels of our nature. The dissonance between reality and idealism is made manifest in GHOSTS through the lead characters, the non-grieving widow Helene Alving (Linda Cropper), and her spiritual advisor/thwarted paramour, Paster Manders (Philip Quast).
Both Cropper and Quast do a fine job of positioning their characters on the border between two contrasting viewpoints. Quast, a vast, resonant presence on stage, is suitably repressed in his defence of spirituality and idealism, whilst Cropper is ever-watchable as she fights against a continual suppression of truth - and in particular, the truth about her unhappy marriage.
There are some truly beautiful, relevant lines in this play, and for the most part Ibsen's words are given space to resonate. But there is no denying that melodrama often creeps in, and when it does, the effect is particularly jarring. Perhaps, in the interests of realism, we are now so used to stripped-back displays of emotion that excess makes us feel uncomfortable. Or perhaps, real emotion is actually closer to melodrama than we care to admit, and this is the source of our discomfort when we see it, glaring, in front of us.
Either way, GHOSTS is a flawed, but worthy production. Together with Shaun Gurton's stunning water-wall backdrop, Paul Jackson's lighting beautifully anchors the tension between repression and revelation, and all five actors on the sparsely decorated stage are talented, committed performers through-out.
With some fine daggers pointed at god and men, Ibsen's themes of double standards and blinkered religiosity still ring true today. It might be a depressing thought, if it weren't for the perverse delight we can take in this reminder that we don't really ever make new mistakes. Most mistakes were made well before our time - in essence these centuries-old human flaws become our modern ghosts, and our inheritance, too.
As Ibsen knew, the smallest of dramas makes for the grandest of stories. And the reality is, nothing is perfect. Ibsen was willing to sacrifice this notion of perfection in the interests of reality, and examination - as long as there was a truth to be told. With this production of GHOSTS, I am prepared to do the same.
Melbourne Theatre Company presents Ghosts
by Henrik Ibsen - adapted by Gale Edwards
Southbank Theatre, 17 May - 23 June 2014