‘Ghosts’ // Theatre Works

All the characters in ‘Theatre Works’ production of Henrik Ibsen’s “Ghosts” are haunted, but not by anything supernatural. They are haunted by the past and the sins of the dead, which are plentiful. Deceit, adultery and incest weigh heavily on them in this dark tale. The Norwegian playwright’s morality play was first staged in 1882, and this adaptation by Jodi Gallagher, set in Australia, is boldly surreal.  

The story follows Mrs. Alving as she prepares to open an orphanage in memory of her late husband, Captain Alving, a wicked man fond of the ladies. The arrival of their son, Oswald, riddled with syphilis, causes things to unravel, secrets are exposed and Mrs Alving must confront the truth about the family’s shady past to stop the deception.  

“Ghosts” caused a public outcry when first published due to its controversial subject matter, which includes free love, religion and euthanasia. This production has much to offer, including a terrific set design by the director, Steven Mitchell Wright, and an excellent sound design by Leahannah Ceff, which contribute to the play’s unnerving atmosphere. What the performance lacks is those subtle moments that allow an audience to sit back and observe the characters and relish just how ghastly they are. Wright directs “Ghosts” with a heavy hand, and this lack of restraint doesn’t always work in his favour. However, the lighting design by Ben Hughes is evocative and helps to enhance the characters and Wright’s glorious outback set.  

As the rebellious widow, Mrs Alving, Laura Iris Hill gives a finely tuned performance. She’s hard as nails and womanly, which is exactly what the script requires of her. Hill is well supported on stage by Phillip Hayden as Pastor Manders, an old friend for whom Mrs Alving still holds a torch. Their early interactions are lovingly honest, offering calm before the storm. Gabriel Cali captivates the audience with his swagger and stage presence. His expressive face and voice draw us into his portrayal of Oswald Alving, making him an actor to watch. Kira May Samu performs admirably as Regina, Mrs Alving’s maid, but Oliver Cowen’s interpretation of her purported father, Jacob Engstrand, left me perplexed. He behaves like a fool, a somewhat peculiar bushman, and feels at odds with his surroundings. Pulling the characterisation back would greatly improve the early scenes he appears in and would help the audience warm to him.     

“Ibsen’s Ghosts” is a play that challenges morality and exposes the consequences of hypocrisy. It may not be a cheerful night out at the theatre, but it serves as a family tragedy, where its characters search for joie de vivre. The play remains bleak, yet fascinating. Unfortunately, Gallagher’s adaptation for Theatre Works doesn’t fully capitalise on the change of setting to the Australian outback. Much more is needed to be done with the script (Australian locations added, expressions and Aussie slang explored) before the characters live and breathe as real ‘dinky-di’ Aussies. 

However, there’s still enough happening visually on stage, and the play’s taboo subject matter provides ample material for a seasoned theatre-goer to enjoy. It’s flawed, but this production is still compelling. 

‘Ghosts’ performs until 15th June at Theatre Works. For more information visit Theatre Works.

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