Monday, October 29, 2012

Theatre: Ghosts

By Henrik Ibsen
Class Act Theatre
Directed by Stephen Lee
Performed by Whitney Richards, David Meadows, Graham Mitchell, Angelique Malcolm and Andrew Southern
Subiaco Arts Centre Studio
Until November 3

Who’s afraid of Henrik Ibsen? All that Lutheran hand-wringing. All that rain.
Certainly the audiences that trampled over each other to see Greta Scacchi in Aarne Neeme’s 1991 production of A Doll’s House overcame their qualms, and this production of Ibsen’s Ghosts, in the same building, deserves an audience as well.
Not that it quite justifies trampling; this is a modestly staged production, given a workmanlike rather than inspired treatment by director Stephen Lee, but there’s enough quality on show to make for a worthy evening’s entertainment.

The 19th century Scandinavian middle class – with all its tension between morality and licence, personal freedom and conformity and, especially, the place of women in the world – is eminently recognisable to us today. Ibsen was its great chronicler, and he often suffered opprobrium for it. Luckily for him, and us, he was too affluent to be starved out, and lived too far away from the streets of Oslo to spit at.
Ghosts may not be his greatest work – the melodrama is very thick at times – but, if it was designed to shock, it succeeded perfectly. Incest, congenital syphilis, assisted suicide and, above all, its affront to the Church and polite society, were guaranteed to scandalise audiences and critics in its own time – and keep our interest 130 years later.
I’m not the first person to be reminded of Ibsen by some of James M. Cain’s work, especially Mildred Pierce. Closer to home, anyone who’s listened to federal Parliament recently will be struck by the different morality for men and women, the twin evils of sexism and misogyny, the rigid expectations, that Ibsen, with his bitter humour and irony, exposes with Gillard-like precision.
There are some fine performances in this production, notably from David Meadows as the grimy grafter, Jacob Engstrand, and the luminous Whitney Richards as his stepdaughter, Regina, whose provenance brings the secrets of the prominent Avling family to light. Unfortunately, Graham Mitchell’s Pastor Manders reaches a white-hot outrage and vehemence so early that his performance has nowhere to go, and sometimes becomes plain silly. It badly damages an otherwise well-made production, and I hope Lee restrains his charge.

A version of this review appeared in The West Australian of 27 October.   

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