Ghosts | Melbourne Theatre CompanyLeft – Linda Cropper and Philip Quast. Photo – Jeff Busby

In Ghosts, written in 1881, a widow in a remote corner of Norway is about to open an orphanage in memory of her prestigious husband. At the same time, their son has returned from his life as an artist in Paris. Plagued by ghosts of the past, this respectable family is about to implode in a drama that is a passionate indictment of hypocritical bourgeois ideals and sexual repression.

The themes of adultery, incest, and venereal and mental illness shocked the first audiences of Ghosts. Today we are not so easily shocked, but the secrets and lies that are exposed in Henrik Ibsen’s play still make for a tense psychological drama, where a woman is torn between duty and passion, between upholding a lie and revealing the unbearable truth. The play is relevant and contemporary, but with a mythic quality that harks back to the dramas of ancient Greece.

Director Gale Edwards, in this Melbourne Theatre Company production, takes the traditional approach, keeping the mythic tone and Ibsen’s original period setting. However, Edwards, an acclaimed director of opera, musicals and theatre, treads a fine line between drama and melodrama. The key moments of confrontation, which should be spine-tingling, are either played down or over-dramatised. Too many opportunities for emotional connection with the audience are lost.

Linda Cropper plays the central character, Mrs Alving, with appropriate dignity and self-restraint. As her family life unravels, this dignity is undermined by emotional excess and over-demonstrative doting on her son, Oswald (Ben Pfeiffer). Pfeiffer, in his MTC debut, is a credible Oswald, sensitive and artistic, but unwisely plays drunk in one scene, and seems unsure how to move on from there to the dramatic climax. Philip Quast portrays Pastor Manders as a flawed cleric, a hypocrite, in a plausible interpretation of the complex relationship between him and Mrs Alving. Richard Piper brings a lightness and humour to the role of Jacob Engstrand and is the most effective at milking the meaning from the dense script. As the daughter Regina, newcomer to the MTC Pip Edwards is the most animated of all, embodying youth and vigour and healthy self-interest.

The set (by Sean Gurton) is dominated by a wall of glass windows, constantly streaming with rainwater, a relentless image of sadness and depression. The raked stage gives a fitting sense of imbalance, but makes the taller actors, particularly Pfeiffer, seem absurdly gigantic. The furniture is sparse, and the actors have to migrate across a vast expanse of stage to swap from the chaise longue to the only chair in tricky choreographed movements.

In Ghosts, Ibsen led the way from moral idealism to modernism, from portraying how things should be to how they are. It is a harrowing play, with no redemption and no way out. It does not call for the leading lady to throw herself on the floor in horror at the turn of events. And yet that is how this production ends, with a gesture that is both melodramatic and alienating.

Melbourne Theatre Company presents
by Henrik Ibsen | adapted by Gale Edwards

Directed by Gale Edwards

Venue: Southbank Theatre, The Sumner
Dates: 17 May – 23 June 2014
Times: Mon/Tues 6.30pm; Wed 1pm & 8pm; Thurs/Fri 8pm; Sat 4pm & 8.30pm.
Duration: 90 minutes, no interval
Tickets $33 – 105
Bookings: | 03 8688 0800

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