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  • Writer's pictureAlex First

Ghosts, at Theatre Works - 96 minutes

Take Henrik Ibsen’s controversial 1881 play – a scathing commentary on morality – and move it from its original Norwegian setting to the Victorian bush in the late 19th century.

 

That is what the award-winning team of playwright Jodi Gallagher and director/designer Steven Mitchell Wright have done with searing impact.

 

Having spent years in Paris, widow Helen Alving’s 27-year-old artist son Oswald returns to the family home for the opening of an orphanage, built in memory of his father.

Photos by Daniel Rabin

 

Captain Alving wasn’t a decent man. Mrs Alving – a God-fearing woman – put up with a great deal, shipping off Oswald to try to protect him.

 

Pastor Manders had his own designs on Mrs Alving and it took all his intestinal fortitude to convince her to stay with her husband.

 

In Mrs Alving’s employment is maid Regina, with whom Oswald has fallen in love, would like to marry and take back with him to Europe. Only when the shocking truth outs, that idea is quickly scuppered.

There is more at play here involving the carpenter who built the orphanage, Jacob Engstrand. He is looking to feather his own nest. He married Regina’s now deceased mother when she was pregnant with her to Captain Alving.

 

Now Engstrand, who regards Regina as his daughter, wants to open a men’s club with the latter’s involvement, an idea she immediately dismisses.

 

And with the orphanage set to open, Pastor Manders convinces Mrs Alving not to insure the building because to do so would suggest a lack of faith in divine providence.

 

Fate intervenes, before Mrs Alving has to reconcile herself with a most objectionable request from her son.

 

Trauma remains at the heart of this new adaptation of Ibsen’s work, which is steeped in societal expectations of the time. In other words, it is all about keeping up appearances.

 

Ghosts is a journey through the shadow of hidden sins. As such, we can still thrill to the appalling.

The heat and dust of a blistering Australian summer are apparent at the superbly rendered two storey wooden home, where the action takes place.

 

While the prime focus is on the spoken interactions of the five characters, surreptitiously appearing behind them, in a slow, zombie-like gait, are the other players. These “apparitions” speak to the dark heart of the piece and are a most effective device.

 

The striking sound design – often loud and piercing – by Leahannah Cleff is another outstanding feature. So, too, Ben Hughes’ moody lighting, which adds to the haunting spectacle.

 

The performances are rock solid. Laura Iris Hill is robust and stoic as Helen Alving. Her confrontations with Philip Hayden, bellicose and vitriolic as the pastor, stand out.

Gabriel Cali is vulnerable and flighty as Oswald, while there is a pragmatism about Kira May Samu’s representation of Regina. Sleazy and self-serving are the hallmarks of Oliver Cowan’s portrayal of the carpenter.

 

The gravitas of Henrik Ibsen’s prose gains new life in an eerie and highly praiseworthy reimaging of the work, which is on at Theatre Works until 15th June, 2024.

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