Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen: October 2010

Review by Colin Archer

I wish that I had been able to see the Shepperton Players’ stage production of this play. Illness prevented my being there, so this review can only be based on the DVD made at the time. Watching the DVD is of course a very different experience from being present in the audience. I am sure I missed some of the nuances of the acting. I certainly missed the shared audience reaction. And I struggled at times to avoid making judgments appropriate to a film but not to a stage production. The only advantage, albeit limited, is that I could watch it twice.

Everything written here must therefore be filtered though these facts and be seen as of limited validity.

As so often in the past, Shepperton Players opted for a complex and difficult play. The difficulty was not that confronting all involved in the original productions in the 1880s, namely the scandal of touching on issues denied, or at least hidden from sight, such as adultery, incest, congenital syphilis (referred to euphemistically by Oswald as his “worm-eaten birth”), and finally euthanasia : these are all now (sometimes too starkly) in the public domain.  It was not even, perhaps, the convoluted speech in which these matters were hinted at, or adjusting to a society in which appearances were all that mattered.  The real difficulty for modern productions is how to bring to life a script with so much static talking (often with only two characters on stage) and so little movement. It is the same difficulty which keeps so many Shaw plays off the modern stage.

I was encouraged when the curtain rose by the deep dark Nordic music and the meticulously recreated late C19 drawing room, above all by the portrait of the late Captain Alving, the ghost whose sins were visited on so many of his own generation as well as, terribly, on the next, and who looked down proud, supercilious, contemptuous.

All five actors confronted challenges far greater than any of the parts they played in any of the other plays I have reviewed since 2008 (though some may well have taken on major parts before then). On this occasion, though, none rose memorably to the challenge.

The most creditable performance came from Olwen Holme in the pivotal role of the widowed Mrs Alving (a mini-Queen Victoria in appearance) who expressed well both her reluctance and her determination to start expressing radical ideas and exposing painful facts.  Here indeed was a thoughtful and spirited person, her own woman. And Olwen was throughout in command of the stage space, rightly so because this represented Mrs Alving’s own home. This had also been the childhood home of her son Oswald  played by Philip L.Milne who, like his mother, moved easily around the stage space/drawing room,  pacing well enough the step-by-step revelation of his dire situation.

The rest of the cast faced a central dilemma.

On the one hand, the play requires them to portray characters who behave stiffly as the times demands, and who are not fully at ease, or comfortable, on Mrs Alving’s territory: Jacob (Robert Johnson) is a mere carpenter entering the ‘big house’; Pastor Manders (Pete Smith) has avoided visiting for years, and represents values which Mrs Alving increasingly rejects with her reference to “old and obsolete beliefs”;  even the position in the household of Regina (Carrie Millinger) is ambiguous (family member or retainer?), an uncertainty which Carrie brings out tellingly on two occasions when invited to join Mrs Alving and her son at the table, and does so only cautiously, moving her chair a little away from the table and not facing them straight on.

On the other hand, exactly the same stiffness and discomfort required of the three of them as characters can be seen as failings in them as actors lacking in stage presence and confidence. And sadly – again through the prism of a DVD – I far too frequently saw these as actors, not as the characters they were portraying, to the extent that, at times, I felt as if I was present at a reading of the script rather than a production which brought it to life.

How could this central dilemma be resolved? The answer is beyond me, and, I suspect, beyond those who determined to tackle this demanding play in Sunbury in 2010.

The play did fortunately come to life from time to time. In the opening scene Regina’s sudden and convincingly-acted outbursts at Jacob gave a glimpse of the suppressed emotions which lie hidden not only within this determined young woman but also under so much of this play. Robert Johnson gave us a suitably oily and opportunistic Jacob, but Pete Smith’s Pastor Manders, one of the most repellent of stage characters (think, in a different form, of Iago), who judges books without opening them and people without really knowing them, came over as rather less smug and obnoxious than I might have expected.

It took a ‘real’ fire, that of the Orphanage, finally to set light to this production, and in the final scene of all, that between mother and son, I was at last propelled well past viewing actors into the presence of ‘real’ people, even ones with echoes of today when a son dying of AIDS returns to die in the closest company with which he was born, that of his mother. The final cry “the sun, the sun” embraced many meanings, including surely an appeal to some ancient Sun God kinder than the forbidding travesty of the Christian God represented by the Pastor.

In the unenviable role of Director, Roland Fahey gave us a convincing sense of this constrained, claustrophobic, and benighted world,  ensured clarity as the story-lines of past and present unfolded, and highlighted key moments: a good start.

This play is  interesting as a document in social history, and of huge importance in the development of modern drama made possible by one of the West’s greatest playwrights. But to revive it as a convincing play for today is beyond most companies, not only amateur ones.

Brave try Shepperton Players!   But remember Robert Browning’s lines

Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp

                         Or what’s a heaven for?

Heaven must, as they say, wait.