You would think that Australia in general and the Melbourne Theatre Company in particular would be up to a production of Ghosts. Ibsen’s extraordinary drama of sex and guilt and the curse of hereditary syphilis is one of the foundational plays of the modern theatre — austere, dramatic to the point of tragic grandeur and with every kind of intimacy, witting and unwitting, sounded to its psychosexual depths.
Late in the piece the first Eliza Doolitle and sometimes mistress of Shaw Mrs Patrick Campbell played Mrs Alving and it’s been played by the great dames of the English-speaking stage ever since. Indeed in the 1970s Richard Connolly, then head of ABC Drama, asked the great Irish actress Siobhán McKenna, the woman who had wowed the world as Pegeen Mike and Saint Joan and Lady Macbeth (and who made the recording of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy in Ulysses which constitutes an act of dramatic genius), if she would do it with Ron Haddrick as her Pastor Manders. Someone should salvage the recording and send it to Gale Edwards because it shows how Ibsen’s late Victorian words can generate all the dramatic tension in the world without storm, fury or stupidity.
Edwards’s production of Ghosts with Linda Cropper as Mrs Alving, Philip Quast as Pastor Manders and Ben Pfeiffer as the son, Osvald is shamefully awful. It encourages the dangerous heresy that we should not bother with the classics of the theatre because we are not up to them. Linda Cropper is a lacklustre Mrs Alving, with flashes of intelligence and a constituent surface of muted appeal but this is a far less successful performance than the one she contributed to Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap a couple of years ago. Cropper at least keeps her head while Philip Quast’s Manders is grotesquely inept, a pompous windbag of a wombat with none of the implicit understanding of things he would rather not know about that the part demands. As the son, Ben Pfeiffer is off on a frolic of his own, giggling and frothing and faffing about like an asylum seeker from a student production in which he has been miscast.
There seemed to be high expectations riding on this production and the audience was full of establishment Melbourne. Anna Schwartz in a small dark hat, Steve Vizard looking like one of those figures in Ibsen who can stare down any disaster. Sigrid Thornton fresh from touring the Mayan ruins of Yucatán. Jane Montgomery Griffiths who might be as a much of a revelation in Ibsen as on her own turf in Greek tragedy.
Ibsen’s world is where hearts are broken, not torn out but having been broken are then turned to ash, but you would scarcely know it from this waddling, ocker, arabesque of melodramatics. It doesn’t matter that much that Edwards’s adaptation is adorned with anachronistic colloquialism and swearing: that merely adds a bit of insult to the substantial injury.
It is objectively astonishing, though, that Edwards’s production doesn’t get within shouting of this absolutely lucid representation of the sins of the dead father and the repressions and compromises of the two potential lovers, mother and priest, who are forced to live in his sleazy shadow and who see it loom over the son who is almost engulfed by incest before he is overtaken by madness and death.
Ghosts is such a diagrammatically good play — so simple and symmetrical in its structure — that Ibsen renders the skill behind its greatness almost inscrutable. It depends absolutely on the way he establishes the regret and tenderness between the middle-aged might-have-beens and then the enraptured love of the mother for her son. It is a play with barely a wasted word and Edwards’s production smothers nearly all of them.
In the case of Philip Quast, who gives much the worst performance in a competitive field, it is almost inconceivable we are watching the same actor who played the husband in Albee’s The Goat, a more difficult part, a decade or so ago for Kate Cherry. He rolls his eyes, he swells his belly, he pontificates inanely and for a lunatic moment the characterisation of this troubled, very comprehensible Scandinavian cleric, looks like an inexplicable exploration of the love life of Polonius. The spectacle has something almost enthrallingly fatuous about it, because it is hard to imagine how any director could fail to tell the actor how he is coming across.
Linda Cropper does a lot better than this and exhibits the sort of wincing intelligence throughout though she never has much of a chance because there is no sexual magnetism to rivet herself to. In the minor, though still crucial role Richard Piper is allowed to be too big as the old rogue Engstrand and it’s a pity given Philip Quast’s ineptitude that we are not getting Piper at his most classical and restrained as Manders. Pip Edwards as his daughter Regina is too sassy and tarty, too much superficial and on-the-make and less the pretty girl who wants to better herself in the great world. But neither Richard Piper nor Pip Edwards have much of a chance in a production as impervious to nuance or subtext and plain knock-you-in-the-eye drama. Then there is Ben Pfeiffer’s fey, sillyass Osvald which looks less like poor direction or mistaken characterisation than it does like a colossal act of ineptitude in the casting of the role. Try the young Ken Branagh (with Judi Dench and Michael Gambon on 1980s BBC TV), try Paul Rees in the 1990s radio recording, try anyone by contrast.
In this context it seems a bit incidental to say that the frosted glass wall on a 45 degree angle to the rest of the audience sits a bit oddly with the Edwardian costumes. Mrs Alving in tight green skirts and high neck white blouse looks as if she’s about to break into ‘The Rain in Spain’. There’s plenty of rain and storm and some crimson operatic fire that are not displeasing in themselves.
Almost everything else is. It doesn’t matter much that the set has a sort of arid untidiness like the abandoned house of a professor designed by some 1960s architect. But it does matter that an Australian director with a London career should come back with a production as bad as this.
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