The plays that make up the cannon of theatre history are traditionally known for being difficult—not only to perform, but to understand and to make relevant. Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts at Belvoir Theatre, directed by the company’s artistic director Eamon Flack, is a real exception, with a number of stand out performances by actors and designers alike.
Ghosts is a show about grief and discovery. Helene Alving mourns the life she led with her late husband and discovers terrible truths about her son, Oswald. The young maid, Regina, uncovers what brought her family together, and her father Engstrand teaches everyone, local religious leaders included, about the deeper meanings of love, trust and forgiveness.
All of these themes should be straightforward enough, but mixing in conversations around terminal illness, end of life care, gender dynamics and the role of religion in daily life makes for a jam packed hour and forty five minutes of theatre. Pamela Rabe is on call as Mrs Irving for the duration, and speaks movingly about lost love. Her character’s need for tight control in a world which denies very much, if any, to women, is gripping if easily overshadowed. Colin Moody as Engstrand is highly compelling; a man blinded by the need for repentance and convinced that nothing will ever be enough, his one monologue had many in the audience near tears.
Taylor Ferguson as Regina is sympathetic if ultimately hard to like—as classic a conundrum for a young woman at work if ever there were. It’s a credit to Eamon Flack’s adaptation that her predicament feels so familiar; the actors speak in plain English and sound distinctly Aussie despite the period setting. Sets by Michael Hankin are strong, timeless and frame the space beautifully without taking up too much of it, while costumes by Julie Lynch are subtle and powerful, especially Mrs Irving’s dress and Engstrand’s slouchy coat.
Robert Menzies delivers a complex performance as Pastor Manders; much of his persona and ideology will feel tiresomely familiar to anyone following the involvement of religious leaders in the current postal vote on marriage equality. As I overheard one audience member comment during a monologue, “it must be nice to be so right all the time.” Tom Conroy as Oswald is charming and deeply heartbreaking.
Much is made about light and the lack of it in the countryside where Mrs Irving lives. Accordingly, design by Nick Schlieper responds brilliantly to the story and creates an amazing transformation in the show’s final moments. Composer and sound designer Stefan Gregory creates a lovely soundscape of rain and other natural phenomena, along with any number of hardily slammed doors.
Ghosts is a tragedy for our times. Brace yourself, and leave with a new perspective on whatever haunts you.
Playing at Belvoir Upstairs Theatre until October 22nd
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