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    Tangible ghosts Essay (951 words)

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    STRATFORD-UPON-AVON: “An open drain,” “unutterably offensive,” “repulsive and degrading,” “garbage and offal” these were typical of the critics’ comments on Ibsen’s Ghosts when it opened in London in 1891. William Archer, one of the playwright’s most fervent admirers (and his translator) collated the horrendous reviews and called them a “shriek of execration.” In these more liberated times, it may be difficult to understand the outrage that greeted Ghosts then and in subsequent productions. Jesse Helms’s attack on the American avant-garde is tepid in comparison.

    As for those like Archer who thought of the play as a great moral drama, they were linked in the local press as “lovers of prurience” and “muck-ferreting dogs,” a graphic way of saying pshaw to Shaw, among others. As Archer has said about the Norwegian dramatist on a previous occasion, “Alas, poor Ibsen! It is well that he does not read English.”

    Misunderstanding of Ibsen came in the highest places. At a state dinner in which the playwright was the guest of honor, the King of Norway admonished him for writing Ghosts and instead praised one of his earlier minor plays. Ibsen could only respond, “I had to write Ghosts.”

    It would be gratifying to say that the play was now universally recognized as one of the author’s most valuable works. Instead, some would argue that it is dated or that its residual power remains in the reading of the text. All such thoughts are banished by the current Royal Shakespeare Company production running through January at Stratford-upon-Avon, as staged by Katie Mitchell. At 28, she is one of a wave of talented young English directors (whose numbers also include Deborah Warner and Sam Mendes).

    The necessity of Ghosts suffuses every aspect of Mitchell’s version, which is as close to a perfect production as one could imagine. In her hands, the play is an emotionally shattering experience as relevant as any modern work about the ravages of AIDS. The subject is not unrelated, as young Oswald Alving is devastated by syphilis and other symbolic sins of his dissolute father. Above all, Ibsen explored the tragedy of a devotion to dead ideals and outmoded beliefs, as represented by Oswald’s mother, who is the reverse of Ibsen’s Nora. Trapped in a poisonous domestic environment, she chooses hypocrisy over freedom. She slams no doors but stays on in order to preserve the facade of a debilitating marriage.

    Mitchell’s production skillfully focuses on Mrs. Alving’s struggle to whitewash her husband’s name. In so doing, she eventually realizes the damage she has caused to her husband as well as to her son and herself. Oswald and Pastor Manders, the well intentioned but wrongheaded family adviser, are important as reflections of Mrs. Alving’s self-deception, In reviewing the last Broadway mounting of Ghosts, a 1982 production starring Liv Ullmann, I said that we rarely felt the intensity and the metaphorical mist of unforgiving memory that pervades this blighted Nordic household. That is precisely what Mitchell and her actors convey at Stratford’s intimate Other Place.

    A dozen years ago, this theatre was the setting for Adrian Noble’s production of A Doll’s House, which achieved a rare equilibrium between the characters of Nora and her husband. He became a man defeated by his own sense of rectitude. Both directors approached Ibsen plays for their tangibility, avoiding histrionics and uncovering the humanity of all the characters.

    In Mitchell’s production, we hear sounds of sea and rain outside the Alving home. Inside, it is all tension and expectation. Jane Lapotaire gives a remarkably restrained and well-modulated performance as the mother, and Simon Russell Beale emphasizes Oswald’s yearning for art and experience. John Carlisle lends credibility to the difficult role of the pietistic pastor who has encouraged Mrs. Alving’s hollow martyrdom. In a time when theatrical deconstruction is in vogue, Mitchell is scrupulous about holding to the text and refraining from anachronisms. The play reinterprets itself. Remaining in period and in atmosphere, it transcends its time, demonstrating once again that Ibsen is our contemporary.

    Throughout, the production captures the dark ambiguities of the play, none more than in the climax when Oswald cries out to his mother, “Give me the sun.” As Beale delivers the line, it is an expression both of the character’s “joy of life” and of the cracking of his mind. The final ghost has come home to rest.

    Despite his unprepossessing, portly appearance, Beale is an actor of virtuosity. In several seasons with the Royal Shakespeare Company, he has moved from hilarious foppishness in The Man of Mode to the decadence of Thersites in Troilus and Cressida, while also playing a Konstantin riddled by melancholy in The Seagull, and the title roles in Marlowe’s Edward II and Shakespeare’s Richard III His Oswald is a man grasping for life at the point of death.

    This summer at Stratford he has been alternating between Oswald and his role as Edgar in King Lear, in which Robert Stephens offers an avuncular performance as a followup to his full-bodied Falstaff. Though burdened with a crippling coat of mud and grime, Beale illuminates an otherwise eccentric production. In a further stretch of his talent, he was scheduled to play Ariel to Alec McCowen’s Prospero.

    On other Stratford stages, The Merchant of Venice is subjected to a Serious Money–style modernization, with David Calder playing Shylock as if he were a coolly professional banker in London’s financial district. At the Swan, T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral is given an articulate but portentous rendition, and Goldoni’s farce The Venetian Twins becomes a rambunctious audience-involving romp. For theatregoers with time to see two plays, Ghosts and The Venetian Twins (at the Swan) would be the choices. This Stratford season, the Shakespearean productions are overshadowed.

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    Tangible ghosts Essay (951 words). (2017, Nov 06). Retrieved from

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