Sunday, October 16, 2011

Subtext and Translation: Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts at Soulpepper

Nancy Palk and Joseph Ziegler in Ghosts. Photo by Sian Richards

If Henrik Ibsen's plays often seem dated for contemporary audiences, it’s because he was writing about a society that shunned anybody caught having extra-marital affairs and (even worse) contracting VD. He believed, as a playwright, that he had a duty to write about the ultra-conservative Norwegian society and expose it in a new, more dramatic way. Writing from 1850 to 1899, Ibsen is considered the first "modern" dramatist whose caustic characters and real-life subject matter paved the way for George Bernard Shaw, Eugene O'Neill and Arthur Miller. He heralded the birth of realism and, much like the simultaneous changes that took place in music and art, his work made waves around the world.

So any kind of consideration of the history of modern plays usually begins with Ibsen. His work is pretty well on every drama student's reading list along with Hedda Gabler, The Wild Duck and An Enemy of the People. Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre Company has already proven an affinity for Ibsen. In 2005, they presented an excellent version of The Wild Duck, offering audiences a chance to see and hear Ibsen’s under-recognized masterpiece.

Ghosts, a 19th Century morality play written two years after the debut of A Doll's House, is the latest welcome addition to the company’s 2011 season. In a new adaptation by director Morris Panych, the play opened to a packed house this past Friday night. In this production, the cast’s preparation and connection with the text was in full-force. Each character desperately tried to find the light in the darkness of their nasty past. But the problems are also insurmountable for Ibsen’s characters who often accept their dilemma while gracefully going down.

Ghosts is the story of a widow, Helen Alving, who upon the advice of her Pastor, decides to open an orphanage using the wealth of her late husband's estate. Her plan is two-fold: cover up the details of her estranged marriage and keep the financial inheritance from her only son, Oswald. During the course of the play, due to her late husband's extra-marital affairs, Helen reveals that her maid is her late-husband's illegitimate daughter. Her son, Oswald upon returning home after a long absence, falls in love with the maid without knowledge of his half-sister. But his poor health offers no hope of redemption.

In Soulpepper’s production, Nancy Palk is outstanding as the strong-willed widow, Mrs. Alving. She brings out Alving’s innate compassion which is balanced by her pragmatism. Mrs. Alving’s story is not quite as compelling as I would like in this translation, but Palk’s performance is still focused and engaging. Part of her success here perhaps is due to working with husband, Joseph Ziegler.

Michelle Monteith, Nancy Palk & Gregory Prest. Photo by Sian Richards

Ziegler plays Pastor Manders as a kind of buffoon at first, but he slowly reveals a deeper, more humane man of the cloth. His role, as the guardian of all things religious, is tempered by a sense of his own self-doubt. The bulk of the play relies on the political and emotional exchanges between these two characters, especially in the first act. Over the course of the evening, Ziegler’s nuanced performance becomes extraordinarily effective.

Gregory Prest plays Oswald Alving, the lost soul of the play. Suffering from an unnamed mental disorder described by Ibsen as “a worm inside his head,” Oswald returns home after several years of hardship in Paris. His pursuit of a career in art comes crashing down in the French capital due to his illness. As he confesses to his mother in Act II, “your son is a fallen man,” echoing the life of his late father who died ten years earlier. Prest’s work borders on the melodramatic at times, but like all the characters on stage, he maintains a humanity that is honest rather than maudlin.

Diego Matamoros, whose work in The Wild Duck was first-rate, plays the comical Jacob Engstrand, an ex-sailor and alcoholic father of Regine who works for the Alving family. But rather than go for the obvious funny lines, Matamoros plays the part with an earthy and genuine exuberance.

Michelle Monteith (Regine Engstrand) is strong in the first act as the young servant and love interest of Oswald, but she doesn’t offer enough emotional range to be effective here. I would have liked more contrast in her performance particularly during the big revelation late in Act II. Regine plays the role with an appealing levelheadedness to be sure, but she also adds a certain naivety that wasn’t part of Monteith’s character.

The set, a flat, almost colourless design featuring a mighty wall of windows as the backdrop, was especially effective. This design offers the director a chance to use the miserable weather as a metaphor for the inner-struggles of the characters. From floor to ceiling, these small frame windows were dressed and lit to reflect a pelting rain storm that doesn’t pass until the end of the play when the sun, albeit too late for the characters, finally comes out.

Period dress was used depicting the late 1880s, but because of the modern translation of the play, it was ineffective in transforming my perception of the material. In other words, I wasn’t taken to a different time or place witnessing the emergence of a modern family. This version of Ghosts could easily have been done in modern dress with the same engaging result. Consequently, I’m not sure if this translation fully works so I’ll leave that for the scholars to debate. But is a new translation necessary for Ibsen in the first place? The subtlety and mystery of the language can sometimes get lost often destroying the subtext of the piece. And subtext is often what defines a classic play such as Ghosts.

Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts is on stage until November 18th.

John Corcelli is a musician, writer and theatre director.

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