Ghosts is one of Ibsen’s most profoundly affecting plays. Its subjects of incest, venereal disease, and euthanasia are no less topical today than they were in 1882, when the drama was first performed. Poor Players’ production, currently running at the Burton Taylor Studio, capitalised on the emotional impact of the text with a performance in the round, literally bringing the audience in to the play’s world. This proved a divisive staging: if you like your Ibsen performed as a hard-hitting realist drama, then this is the production for you. But if you’re looking for more of the symbolism that lies beneath the surface, this performance will leave you wanting. The intimacy of the venue and intensity of the acting provided plenty of tension, but there was little of the sense of the uncanny that comes with Ibsen’s original title, Gengangere, which translates closer to “Revenant” or “Again-walker” than “Ghosts”.
Ghosts contains an extraordinary amount for a single play. It’s full of plot twists, and touches on a formidable number of the most pressing political issues of Ibsen’s time. A widow, Helene Alving, is opening an orphanage in memory of her dead husband, when her son, Oswald, returns home from Paris. From here Ibsen builds one of his most acrid social critiques, addressing everything from women’s rights to the church’s role in the formation of cultural values. Richard Eyre’s translation cuts the running time to 90 minutes, resulting in a beautifully tight dramatic structure. It’s a fluid and colourful adaptation, updating Ibsen’s prose for the contemporary stage — it’s no surprise that Eyre’s 2014 production using this script won an Olivier award for Best Revival. The concision of the translation suited this production perfectly, with the pared back staging and small venue allowing for a concentrated focus on the acting. The unrelenting crescendo that builds itself over the hour and a half encapsulates the claustrophobia felt by Oswald in his home town, sapping his joy for life. The onstage chemistry between the cast was undeniable, with an experienced team drawn from some of the most familiar faces of Oxford student theatre.
At times though, the performance could have benefitted from some breathing space. In one sense, Ghosts is one of Ibsen’s most melodramatic plays, from the emotional excess to the enormous landscape backdrops in the original stage directions. In another sense, though, it’s full of nuance and complexity, from its exploration of evolutionary theories to its conflicted female characters. Isobel Jesper Jones as Helene and Sammy Glover as Regina were largely convincing, but were at their best when they paced themselves and allowed for some moments of reflection amidst the onslaught of emotional trauma. Ieuan Perkins somewhat stole the show as the weak and corrupt Pastor, his final scene with Engstrand (Alex Hill) one of the most appropriately despicable of the entire performance.
There were some practical difficulties with the decision to perform in the round, namely that half the audience could not see the actors’ expressions for much of the drama, in a play that is as much constructed around the unsaid as the explicitly spoken (although I expect that this problem was exacerbated from my particular seat). These aside, what I missed most from the staging was the symbolic “otherness” that resides beneath and within the script. For me, the cleansing fire that destroys the orphanage lost something of its power here, being neither at a physical remove nor committing to engulfing the audience entirely in a more immersive gesture. Oswald continually refers to a metaphorical fog that hangs over his life, but there was little present in this staging, which sometimes erred more on the side of didactic than questioning.
One of the production’s greatest strengths was its attention to detail, from the period costumes to the autumnal leaves that adorned the stage. But this same clarity kept it from accessing more liminal conceptual spaces — the focus was always on the living and the present, leaving little room for the revenant and absent. Nonetheless, as a gritty social drama this production is superbly executed, both on and off the stage.
‘Ghosts’ runs at the Burton Taylor Studio until Saturday 18th June. For more information and to book tickets, please visit their Facebook page.