Ghosts – The Depot Theatre rescues Ibsen from middle class theatre morality. (Theatre Review)
The Depot Theatre
Ibsen’s Ghosts is a classic, and like all classics it bares the burden of relevancy. I have recently seen the latest Game of Thrones inspired version of Macbeth (!) a film that broke its belly open trying to justify its own existence. For me, I want to see all the classics, and I’m even happy to see some of them every couple of years. I prefer it when they’re deconstructed and playfully toy with historical trends, but I still love seeing the magic of a truly beautiful text come to life. Be warned, the current manifestation of Ghosts at The Depot Theatre plays with a classic, and this sort of courage is rarely well received. However what emerges as the fascinating morality of Ghosts, is that Ibsen himself intended to offend our sensibilities with this play. My question is, what are we doing to Ibsen when we elevate him to a theatrical moral overlord who becomes the weighty yardstick for well executed, appropriate theatre? When Ibsen wrote Ghosts and asked us to question middle class morals, it is natural to assume he would equally ask us to question our middle class morals around the way we perceive and receive theatre.
The idea that society is constrained by morality is well stated and an idea I find tedious in its repetition. To complain about morality is a spurious superiority, as if awareness provides us with a kind of immunity or dispassionate gaze. Isn’t it the nature of middle class morality to be aware of itself, and isn’t the kicking against it part of its claim to permanence? When Ibsen first wrote Ghosts, it was so shocking it was banned, refused and canceled all over the Western world. He revealed middle class morality to be the surface layer of containment that, via its restrictions, allowed for unsanctioned human behaviour to reveal itself at its darkest. Artists have continued this bandwagon, laboring under the assumption they’re the only one’s who can see middle class morality is a facade, and that exposure will somehow interrupt its stranglehold on daily life. This has a startling resonance with the contemporary monogamy debate, another banal conversation that imagines itself exposing something unexamined. Yet the truth of monogamy, and restrictive middle class morality, is that to live it is to question it daily. The interesting statement about the imposition of public moral standards isn’t that they are false, it is why do we need/want them?
Ghosts is a deep, complex, highly nuanced play. Yet under Julie Baz’s direction, the play is performed at its surface, almost like the middle class morality it seeks to expose. Ibsen has become the thing he most despised – the theatrical moral yardstick for the bourgeoisie to judge and measure by. Julie Baz interrupts this and transforms Ibsen into just another wannabee playwright. This is an ambitious idea. It’s not entirely successful, and the production (particularly seeing as it is equally burdened with casting issues) comes off as half-baked at times. However in the context of Ibsen becoming the very thing he seeks to expose in this particular play, we see Baz involving herself in the very same twists and complexities that Ibsen wanted to challenge. The problem with Ghosts is that our distorted resurrection of the ghost of Ibsen weighs heavily over it – not just the spirited presence of dead white morals. We know how we feel about him and his play before we enter the room. The only question we bring is, will the theatre company live up to our expectations of it, will they fail, or will they find a way to jolt us out of our middle class moral slumber? It’s the same judgement, expectation, opinion and steely invisible barrier that Ibsen criticised in the very play being presented.
Julie Baz performs the task of director and lead. True to her vision, her words are sometimes delivered as speech. She becomes an orator for Ibsen instead of the character Helene at times and this can provide challenging viewing that benefits from knowing the text before hand. However she delivers with warmth and a confused optimism that is tragically cut short in the play, so that we feel deeply for her. Steve Vincent as Oswald is probably the character played most to the traditional tune we know from this Ibsen production which acts as a stirring and fascinating counterpoint to the other characters. Against this, Emily McGowan’s Regina is a marvellously modern Millie, a character in whom we can see the stirrings of feminism. Zac McKay gives us another fairly traditionally performed role in Jacob, which is made all the more interesting against David Jeffrey’s Pastor Manders (try saying that ten times in a row quickly) modern take on his character. There were times when Jeffrey sounded so much like my father I got goose bumps!
As I said above, however, this spirit of judgement and expectation manifest in moral condemnation exists for a reason, and the questions raised by Ghosts, that I found the most interesting are more about why we remain true to the petty insistence of bourgeoise theatre going morality, than what that morality means. Elevating Ibsen to the very position he sought to expose and destroy is one way of negating all Ibsen was trying to get us to see. It is no doubt the most vicious and nasty attacks on his talent as a playwright. Bringing him down among us, playing him for his surface level and eschewing the depths we use as escape from ourselves, is a way of returning to his original point. Yet, it will be as unsuccessful as Ibsen’s original plan to expose middle class morality to ourselves, mark my words.
So my central question remains. Why do we do this theatre moralising to ourselves, and why do we need to?