People so quickly forget their past selves.
Helene Alving’s married life has been held together by lies, but with her only child Oswald returning to Norway from his bohemian artist’s life in Paris, Helene hopes to liberate them both from past taboos after one final gesture of duty to her famous, but secretly debauched, late husband. When Pastor Manders arrives to discuss the business of building an orphanage in his name, the secrets of the past begin to unravel, and Helene must face the decisions and deceptions that have haunted her and understand that they can never truly be exorcised.
Written in 1881 by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen and initially banned from performance due to its discussion of sexually transmitted diseases, incest, euthanasia, and illegitimate children, Ghosts is a play about the destructive nature of secrets and the social codes rooted in religion, sexism, and ideas of morality that feed and enable this destruction.
The Curators, a group of independent Brisbane-based professional artists who work to bring new life to classical theatre, enable Brisbane audiences to experience the city’s first professional production of Ghosts in 30 years. This production, adapted and directed by Michael Beh, made heavy use of symbolism and ran the first two Acts of the play together with the final, foreshadowed revelations taking place in a fast-paced final Act after interval. Modern coarse language added an extra harshness and crassness that emphasised the intentions of the characters but did not always feel natural against the rest of Ibsen’s script.
Michael Beh wrote in his Director’s Note that his adaptation adds an extra mythic element to the work: “Five revenants are pulled into a world. They are to play out the tragic story of Mrs Helene Alving and her son Oswald. They do not want this. The scenes keep rebooting…and tomorrow they will do it again. And again. And again.” This take on the script resulted in uncanny scene changes and interludes as the revenants returned to the story or tried to separate themselves from it. Touches of paint on the faces and hands of the cast added to the ghostly effect, and the plastic-wrapped furniture of the set gave the eerie impression that the story was already over, the ending predestined, and that these apparitions were living out a script that had really concluded long ago.
Stepping into The Curators Vintage Pop-Up Theatre at the St Barnabus Anglican Church hall in Red Hill, with the church having been built at around the same time that Ghosts was written, we were immediately engulfed in the gloom and ambience of the play. Lighting design by Bethany Scott and operation by Bella Wright, including total blackouts during scene changes, contributed significantly to the unnerving atmosphere, as did the plastic and painting by Design Bordello and sound design by Brian Cavanagh and Nick McMillan.
The costuming of the Alvings and their maid Regina, bedecked in lush fabrics and symbolically removing layers throughout the production, contrasted with the paint-spattered jumpsuit of the carpenter Engstrand and the plainer attire of Pastor Manders, all designed by Michael Beh and with Jan Mandrusiak and Lisa Hickey in wardrobe.
The cast of five performers demonstrated absolute mastery of tension in this performance, and made full use of the space as well as employing pantomime, song, and slow-motion action to draw the audience further into the story and its emotional and physical settings. Lisa Hickey brought significant variety to the role of Helene Alving, by turns flirtatious, coy, maniacal, possessive, and tormented. Patrick Shearer was riveting as Oswald, languidly unpredictable but increasingly unkempt, frightening, and violent as his ideas of the past unravelled around him. The scenes between Hickey’s overbearing Helene and Shearer’s spoiled, unhinging Oswald were standout – the intensity and fury in their interactions made it almost difficult to watch.
Lauren Roche was smug and sexually aggressive as Regina, and her singing was unexpected and impressive. Warwick Comber was self-assured and intimidating as Engstrand, to the extent that even audience members wanted to avoid his gaze in the intimate performance space, and Tom Coyle embodied the decorous and devout Pastor Manders, a personification of social codes’ disregard for individuals, and the way they are reinforced through blind piety.
Ghosts is intense, intimate, whites-of-the-eyes theatre that left me feeling breathless long after the doors were opened, and we had stepped back out into the Queensland sunshine. This adaptation by The Curators is wonderfully chilling, skilfully disturbing, and well worth experiencing for yourself.
The Curators will perform Ghosts from 19 July – 4 August at The Curators Vintage Pop Up Theatre, 28 St Barnabas Place, Red Hill, with a post-show discussion on Sunday 28 July and 30-minute student rush tickets available at the door before every performance. For ticketing and further information, visit The Curators website.
Please note: Ghosts contains strobe lighting, mature adult themes including high level coarse language, and references to sexually transmitted disease, incest and euthanasia.