Ghosts, Henrik Ibsen’s controversial play, reviled upon its first production in 1882, is not on the surface the most pertinent play for a 21st century audience; its major themes are religion, incest, euthanasia, and syphilis. Despite this, director Polly Findlay’s artistic brilliance brings Ghosts into an entirely new realm, that of the modern day.
When taking your seats in the cavernous yet intimate theatre space at HOME, star Niamh Cusack, who plays the play’s protagonist Helen Alving, is sitting on a sofa in the centre of the stage, eating a banana and peeling potatoes. It was clear from the first moment that this was going to be absorbing and emotional, and above all, character-driven, which is hardly surprising in an Ibsen play.
For a show filled with dialogue — raging, agonising, emotive — a remarkable amount goes unsaid.
This new rendering of the play by David Watson, from a literal translation by Charlotte Barslund, combines the weighty speeches of Ibsen with local British dialects, a lot of swearing from the almost comedic Engstrand (played with aplomb by William Travis, who garnered a lot of often raucous laughter), and dialogue littered with modern-day English, far from its origins in 19th century Danish. This dialogue carries every character — all the acting is superb, yet the script really does shine — rumbling along until the final scene of Act 1 and again until the play’s conclusion.
That the show is as provocative now as it was 130 years ago, and still somehow just as relevant, is testament to Findlay and Watson’s unrivalled creativity.
The intricate set resembled a TV studio, giving an eerie sense of being voyeurs of a usually secret and closed-in family life, and the use of sliding doors and artificial daylight and rain really emphasised the outside-looking-in feeling, largely coupled with heavy dramatic irony, as though commenting on a certain 21st century obsession with the lives of others.
However, the set immediately prepares the audience for a play full of unknowing and ambiguity — Findlay has created a space in which there are blindspots for every audience member, but this restricted view is art in action: shadows and lighting, sounds and echoes replace visible characters, giving the audience the sense of truly being in the presence of ‘Ghosts’, and perhaps suggesting that in the modern era there should be some things left unseen.
Findlay’s production harnesses this modernity in the way it breaks up the play’s two acts; an interval would have been detrimental to the play’s pace, so the sudden complete blackout in the theatre, accompanied by deafening rock-esque music and flashes of red light, overlayed with broken, wailing, aggressive poetry, worked well both in heightening the drama of the plot and presenting a moment to think and breathe.
This atmosphere is no doubt a product of the play’s intense focus on character: each player is so multi-layered, unpredictable, and unstable, and their relationships with one another are so mangled between past and present, truth and lies, that it is at times a challenge to keep up, which is surely the intention.
This succeeds thanks to the stellar acting — though it is undoubtedly Niamh Cusack who shines the brightest. She is so convincing as Helen, embodying her character’s emotions and motives so physically that at times it becomes hard to focus on anyone else. The final scenes of each act displayed this prowess — she carries the weight of the world on her shoulders and takes the audience along for the ride.
Overall, the play masterfully implicates the audience in moral and ethical messages, which was the intention of Ibsen back in the 1800s, but is clearly an overwhelming intention too of Findlay’s 21st century version — it’s hard to ignore the sense that these people could live on your road, and that we will never truly know what happens behind closed doors. It’s worth seeing for a multitude of reasons, chiefly for the supreme acting, set design, and thought-provoking modernised script, but don’t expect to come away without a disconcerting sense of foreboding.
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