Sir Richard Eyre, adaptor and director of BAM’s production of Henrick Ibsen’s Ghosts was quoted in the program as stating… “If there is a poem that comes to mind when I think of Ghosts, it is [Robert] Frost’s poem Fire and Ice:
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
After hearing Sir Eyre talk about his production and then seeing the play on Thursday night I do feel that Frost’s poem is fitting to the choices Ibsen character’s make. Whether to perish and reveal their inner desires or to destroy their souls underneath a veil of ice.
In addition BAM offered its audiences’ a plethora of background information about the play and playwright online and in the program (the theatre nerd in me was clapping like a seal – but on the inside of course). In my education I started to expand my view of what Ibsen has done for women through his plays.
One of my only other references to this subject was playing “Thea” in Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler in a scene study class within my Conservatory. I was assigned the role and was a little puzzled about what to do with an Ibsen character (to be quite honest I would have rather tackled Shakespeare). I buckled down with my scene partner and applied every tool I had been taught to get into the character. Inner mantra went something like… “relaxation leads to concentration and leads to imagination”. The language, the world and Hedda began to work on me and I found myself (bounded in a corset and a rehearsal skirt) understanding what it was like to feel the need to run. My instincts kicked in and my body related to the words explaining that I must flee a marriage to an older man that doesn’t respect me as an equal. I (as Thea) had only one choice towards empowerment by gravitating towards a man who made me happy and the possibility of true love.
How does this relate to Ghosts? A play that probably tops the list of controversial Ibsen plays seeing as how the King of Sweden at the time told him it was not a good play – society did not want to morally grapple with the issues the characters were grappling with – the program listed these issues to include syphilis, “moral cowardice, patriarchy, class, sex, hypocrisy, heredity, incest and euthanasia.” Well… I realized that Ibsen put the tough issues onto the shoulders of his female characters and by sneaky default the audience is able to see the strength of women. I was able to feel it through playing Thea too – an almost invisible character choosing to be truly seen despite all odds. As in Ghosts, it is the women that take the responsibility of re-engaging with society in new ways that weren’t prescribed, or ‘safe’ for them. It is in this difficult changing, in the face of much criticism, that Ibsen’s women force the men in their lives to grapple with the tough issues. It is only when the women become unrepressed in Ibsen’s plays that society becomes able to truly move forward – not just to exist as it always had repression and all.
Still, even in this modern time, I was very happy the play runs without intermission – it’s tough stuff! I purchased the loner seat (E 101) in the gallery of BAM’s Harvey Theatre and ended up finding a little jewel of a raised seat. Combined with binoculars I thought it was a great view! One patron walked by and told me it looked like I was being punished and an usher offered to move me closer but they couldn’t see what I saw!
The stage, designed by Tim Hatley, was set within the home of Helene Alving, played by Lesley Manville who won an Olivier Best Actress Award for this role. As the other characters walk to and fro with their reflections following them in a veiled mirror splitting the stage it seemed to evoke all of Helene’s repressed thoughts and memories. Her husband’s infidelity and all of the covering up and lying she’s been compelled to do over the years. It was truly inspiring for me to watch Manville play this character, as with her stage experience, she has mastered the use of her energy and her instrument (body). It was always appropriate to the task and the urgency of the situation. I learned about the power of listening by watching her too because she always took appropriate pause when it was time to lend the light to other players. All of the characters in this production did master the art of listening and letting what other characters say impact their next thought. In this way I was taken on a journey with them.
Manville’s Helene is justified in the decisions that she’s made, we see guilt and fear surface every so often, but she’s always fighting for a way to continue on. I started to see, especially in her conversations and flirtations with her past flame, Paster Manders (played by Will Keen)… that she’s been expertly removing judgment from her life as she’s fought through it. In her efforts to do so she’s found a way be honest with herself; whereas, the pastor in his judgment of the people around him has based his worldview on untruth. The facing of certain realities becomes unimaginable for him and he is unable to allow himself, or Helene, the possibility of finding joy in their undeniable love. In the pastor’s repression he begins to become deviant. He is unable to confess that he commits arson – and allows an openly sinful man to take the blame.
This openly sinful man was Jacob Engstrand, played by Brian McCardie, and he really is comic relief in this play. In his drunk state he has let go of most common, and useful, repression to the extent that he often finds himself being dismissed. I didn’t like all of his actions and yet at first glance I liked him simply because he made me laugh!
In fact the entire ensemble, including Charlene McKenna (playing Regina Engstrand) and Billy Howle (playing Oswald Alving) had urgency, importance and a great need to say every word in the play. I enjoyed this respect for the work very much.
As for the going the extra mile with this production – the lighting has to be mentioned. In creating the shadowy Alving home that would haunt Helene, the lighting designer Peter Mumford described his process and inspiration in an interview with the Almeida Theatre. He approaches the set design process collaboratively by talking with the director, set and costume designer to understand the model and geography of the set and then puts together a lighting concept that will suit the performance unfolding in the rehearsal room. I thought it was particularly fascinating to learn that the monochromatic use of light in Vilhelm Hammershoi paintings inspired Mumford’s lighting design for Ghosts. As with a painting, Mumford creates a “physical and psychological” atmosphere and edits it to “create a sense of time and focus, telling the viewer what to look at.” One particular example of how lighting intersected with the performance is the beautiful orange-yellow sunrise at the end of the play, contrasting the monochromatic palette used during the rest of the play, correlating with the demise of Oswald’s life as he asks his mother to give him the sun.
Some say the world will end in fire…