It is late 19th century, and the widowed Mrs Alving is building an orphanage so that her dead husband’s money can be released from her conscience. She is still unable to find peace, even though her poisonous marriage is now over, after having suffered in silence for decades. Ibsen’s Ghosts is about the incontrovertible links between past and present. It looks at how we are controlled by beliefs, events and decisions of days gone by, and the unconscious ways in which we keep ourselves and one another bound to societal rules and conventions.
Mrs Alving understands that a better life is possible, yet she persists with misery. Director Eamon Flack prompts us to question the nature of our protagonist’s volition, whilst simultaneously placing emphasis on external forces that insist on her compliance. From all our personal experiences, we know the tension that lies inevitably between others and the will of the self. The concept of a self-determined existence is an attractive one, even though none of us can lay claim to have fashioned an entirely independent state of being.
Ghosts is an inherently challenging work, and with the passage of time, its narrative has turned predictably archaic, leaving only its central philosophies to speak with pertinence. Tradition and religion no longer hold the same power, so the Alving family’s story is in many ways only a relic, but Flack’s ability to turn the essence of Ibsen’s writing into a resonating force for his show, is certainly admirable.
Pamela Rabe’s performance as Mrs Alving has an understated charm, that shifts the play’s old melodramatic quality to something that is altogether more elegant and naturalistic. It is quite extraordinary the way Rabe sublimates obsolete details into her very convincing storytelling. All the actors are worth their salt, successful in bringing invigoration and surprising nuance. Equally remarkable are Nick Schlieper’s lights, especially noteworthy in the final act, when imagery turns breathlessly sublime (set designed by Michael Hankin and costumes by Julie Lynch), and we see baroque paintings come to life.
Artists need knowledge of the past, in order that they may forge new ground, but like characters in Ghosts, their work is constantly under threat of being undermined by the reverence we so often attribute to the historical. The continual resurrection of dead white males like Ibsen can be necessary, although it can also be thought symptomatic of problems that the Australian artistic landscape faces. Our art means little if it hinges so strongly on traditions of olden Europe. The Alving patriarch might be dead and buried, yet those he had left behind are doomed to perpetuate his agony. We want them to renounce those burdens and henceforth, prosper with the current of their own autonomy. Nonetheless, it seems easier said that done.