‘I’m like a walking corpse’
Ibsen isn’t known for his cheery plays. Yet ‘Ghosts’, on at the BT studio until Saturday, is something else altogether. It’s fascinating, disturbing, deeply complex, yes: these are all Ibsen characteristics. But with syphilis, near-incest, and euthanasia the subject-matter, along with Ibsen’s favourite, oppressive moral codes, ‘Ghosts’ is intense stuff. You can see why audiences in the late nineteenth-century were horrified. The Daily Telegraph of the day called it ‘an open drain; a loathsome sore unbandaged; a dirty act done publicly’. And in Richard Eyre’s interval-less ninety-minute version, there’s no let-up.
Of course, it’s not the venereal disease or the threat of incest that makes the play so penetrating. It’s the heavy, tawdry, guilty, nature of every human exchange that occurs. No one is innocent. Characters continually lie, and when they tell the truth the consequences are even worse. Nor is there any answer, any solution. It’s not unusual to watch drama and think: how silly! if they’d just done this instead of that, if they’d just apologise, if they’d just reach out—it would all be alright. But nothing will make anything any better in ‘Ghosts’. Even when things—plans, people—are over, or dead and gone, they continue to haunt.
Director James Watt has opted for performance in the round, compounding the claustrophobia of the play’s atmosphere. The action begins with Regina Engstrand (Sammy Glover), a maid, sweeping; she’s interrupted by her lascivious father, Jacob (Alex Hill), who wants her to move in with him and seems determined to have his way. Regina yells at him, but the stifling air has a momentum of its own: from the start it’s clear that, whatever happens, there won’t be an escape from misery, not for anyone. After Jacob leaves Pastor Manders (Ieuan Perkins) arrives, barely able to keep his eyes from Regina, now a grown woman, ‘filled out. It suits you’. Regina soon runs off to get her boss, Helene (Isobel Jesper Jones), who the Pastor’s come to see; he’s her business advisor. And Helene, when she arrives, is happy, hopeful. Her son Oswald (Yash Saraf) has come home from his life as a painter in Paris—come home ‘indefinitely’.
And that’s it. The tiny cast only stresses the locking-down intimacy of the set, which doesn’t change throughout. There are hardly ever more than three people onstage at once, and not much in the way of props apart from paper contracts and alcohol. Costumes are understated. It’s as if the joy of life Oswald’s desperate for can’t find roots, even in the scenery. The haunting that Helene’s convinced of won’t let anything keep it from its work.
‘A slow softening of the brain. I thought it sounded beautiful.’ Disease has already taken over these characters, blotting out their hopes and their good intentions. Superbly acted by all cast members, especially Jones and Saraf, this is a dark, heavy, thrilling play. Not one to miss.