Noted 19th century Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen knew how to hit a chord with his audiences. Like all good writers, he used his plays as a mirror of the society he lived in and exposing all its flaws to the world around him. He wrote what others only thought of in the depths of their souls, and this is why he remains popular to this day, and why his play, Hedda Gabler, is one of my favourites.
It's also why I jump at any opportunity to see an Ibsen play performed anywhere in Sydney, and why I took the opportunity to see Ghosts in Marrickville's Depot Theatre.
When it was first performed in 1882 in Chicago, Ibsen was displeased with the English translation of the play's title (written as "Gengangere" in Norwegian - or Danish, as is often the case with Ibsen's plays at this time in history). Its literal translation is closer to "The Ones who Return", but despite this brief research on Wikipedia, the term "Ghosts" really does apply to the characters in this play, because here, it's the sins of the father that haunt the living.
Helen Alving (Julie Baz) is doing the dutiful wife thing and building a memorial orphanage in her deceased name. Her son, Oswald (Steve Vincent) is in love with her housemaid Regina (Emily McGowan) but in her conversations with Pastor Manders (David Jeffrey), we learn that the life Helen had with her husband wasn't always a bed of roses, and, because of that, the life Oswald wants with Regina will never be.
It's a meaty story that leaves your brain churning hours after leaving the theatre, especially because Ibsen is so adept at writing his female characters as well-rounded people with hopes and dreams, rather than just supporting roles in their husband's lives. In an age where #heforshe rules the Twittersphere and everyone is either for or against the word "feminism", this idea that a woman's duty is to her family first to the detriment of ever fullfilling her own ambitions is still a topic in 2015. Maybe in different ways, but what else can we call it when we both laud and lambast a woman for being a fulltime working mother/being a fulltime stay-at-home mother/supporting her partner/leaving her partner/bringing up baby/calling up the nanny.
It's to the cast's credit that they have approached their performance of this play with the weight it deserves. Whilst 2 key members of the cast dropped out, the show went on (as it does in showbiz) and, the night I saw the play, the turnout was solid and so were the performances. Having not been familiar with the play, and never having seen a previous performance of it anywhere, I tried to take Julie Baz's interpretation of it (she was also the director) as gospel - for the evening. I would have loved to have seen Helen in a different kind of anguish when she confides in Pastor Manders, and perhaps in a more stoic and resolute demeanor in the final scene, like a doomed solider going into battle, but maybe these are my 21st Century preconceptions of how a female character written in the 19th Century is meant to react to society pressures. For whatever reason, I really wanted to see Helen go from powerful society wife to broken and helpless woman (not that I would wish that demise on anyone!).
Julie Baz as Helen, Emily McGowan as Regina and Steve Vincent as Oswald
In contrast, the only other female character in a play written by a man who knows how to write female characters is the maid, Regina. Rather than play her as simply a bit of eye candy for lovesick Oswald, (and as the receiver of some pretty creepy attention from Jacob, played by Zac McKay), Emily McGowan turned Regina into a woman who knew where she wanted to go, where she wanted to be and who she needed to be with to get there. Again, my 21st Century mindset may have garbled this representation, but I do enjoy the difference between the two women in this play.
Overall, Ghosts was an enjoyable performance and a great place to discover Ibsen in Marrickville.