GhostsL-R: Bruce Myles, Ming- Zhu Hii, Andrea Swifte, Jay Bowen & James Wardlaw. Photos - Deryk McAlpin

Dark secrets, fear, suppressed sexuality, ghosts: Henrik Ibsen's Ghosts, now playing at Theatreworks in St Kilda has it all; all the things we expect from a good ghost story and more. The production has good writing, strong performances and sensitive direction. All these come together to create a really satisfying theatrical experience which effectively brings a nineteenth century classic to life for a twenty-first century audience.

This country is haunted by ghosts – numerous as grains of sand. And all of us are so pathetically afraid of the light. Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen

Light was what Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen sought to shine on nineteenth century Norwegian society. His works, including A Doll's House (1879) and Ghosts (1881), put contemporary society under Ibsen's literary microscope, dissecting it to reveal the ironies and hypocrisies inherent in a society where male values and attitudes determined 'correct' behaviour for all, especially women. So successful was he at shining light into the dark corners of his society that his works were greeted with violent criticism by the press and the public. During the winter of 1879 in Stockholm it was said that many a social invitation ... bore the words 'You are requested not to mention Ibsen's Doll's House!'. Ghosts also enraged press and audiences. When first produced in London in 1891 one critic decried the melancholy and malodorous world created by Ibsen.

In the production now playing at Theatreworks, The Branch Theatre Company and director Melanie Beddie have shone their particular light onto Ibsen's play. As Beddie says in the program notes the language of the translation (adapted by Louis Nowra and May-Brit Akerholt), the conception and the design (Emily Barrie, Richard Vabre and Nicholas Verso) irreverently intermix the past with the present, the traditional with the popular. Gone is the traditional Victorian style living room. In its place is a triangular, icy blue and white set, open on two sides, with minimal white furniture and a central doorway. This is placed on a raised platform. To one side, on the lower level is a long, cloth covered table; centre front is another long table and stage right there is a coat rack. All is held within the open black space of Theatreworks. Hovering over the scene, high at the back, is a ghostly image of the master of the house, the now deceased Captain Alving.

Ibsen's works are noted for their realism and for the fact that all the key events have happened in the past. What he shows his audiences are the results of past actions. The ghosts in this play are ideas rather than people, past actions carried out in an effort to 'do the right thing', to conform to social values, which turn out to have a destructive and deadly effect in the present. Mrs Alving is the widow of a highly respected local entity. Her son Osvald has just returned from years spent studying art in Paris, and she, in partnership with the family friend, Pastor Manders, is preparing a public celebration to open an orphanage in honour of her late husband. But all is not as it seems. Her son brings a deadly secret with him and his return is the catalyst which prompts the exposure of a welter of past secrets and lies which successfully destroy Mrs Alving's carefully constructed façade aimed at preventing social criticism and creating an ideal for her son.

The performances are universally strong. Andrea Swifte brings a quiet dignity and intelligence to her portrayal of Mrs Helene Alving. James Wardlaw is perfect as the self-righteous Pastor Manders who is ultimately only concerned with his own reputation. Bruce Myles gives Engstrand a wicked street wisdom - he knows only too well how to win over the likes of Manders. Regina, the maid is trapped between the upper and working classes; Ming-Zhu Hii gives her a vitality and naiveté that is engaging but doesn't undermine the credibility of her decision at the end of the play. Jay Bowen does a good job with the difficult role of Osvald Alving.

Beddie directs the whole with a deliciously light touch, bringing moments of humour into what is, after all, a dark play which raises many questions but offers no answers. There is a one moment during a long exchange between Manders and Mrs Alving where the unexpected entrance of Regina carrying a duck briefly creates an effective change of pace and focus. The sound effects (Melanie Beddie) work well to create an edgey, unsettled mood.

Ibsen's strong stance on the rights of women will appeal to contemporary audiences as will his condemnation of the failure of individuals to dare to question and to act. Audiences will also respond to The Branch Theatre Company's 'irreverent' mixture of past and present, traditional and popular.

The Branch Theatre Co presents
by Henrik Ibsen
Adapted by Louis Nowra & May-Brit Ackerholt

Venue: Theatreworks, 14 Acland Street St.Kilda
Preview: Thursday May 3 @8pm
Dates: May 4-20
Times: Tues @ 6.30pm; Wed – Sat @8pm; Sun @6.30pm    
Tickets: $25 Conc $18
Bookings: 9534 3388 

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