Henrik Ibsen's controversial classic gets a bleak translation at Soulpepper, so dark it sometimes gets murky.
Every family has their share of skeletons in the closet, but in Soulpepper Theatre’s latest production Ghosts, skeletons are the least of their problems. The secret scandals of the Alving family just won’t stay dead and buried.
The current version of Ghosts is a new translation of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s infamous play (the original title means roughly “the ones who return”), by director Morris Panych. The audience eavesdrops into the home of the distinguished Alving family, the patriarch of which has recently died; his widow is in the process of building a new orphanage in his honour. Their son, Oswald, has also recently returned to the family home from working as an artist in Paris, planning on an extended stay after about twenty years of living abroad. Over the course of one night a visit from the local cleric, Pastor Manders, spurs a savage unravelling of secrets Mrs. Alving has kept since she first ran away from her husband in the early days of their marriage, touching upon alcoholism, STIs, rape, infidelity, gender roles, and more.
And you thought your family was messed.
At the time of its writing in the early 1880s, Ghosts was uproariously controversial for putting such taboo issues literally under a spotlight. In the play this is mostly given voice through the main moralizing character, Pastor Manders (played by Joseph Ziegler), who reprimands Mrs. Alving for reading modern literature, scolds her for trying to leave her abusive husband when her children were young, and condemns her as a failure of a mother for sending her son away as a child. Even as the family start to crumble around the pastor as a result of his closed-mindedness, he doesn’t show much of a change of heart. While many in Ibsen’s time would have agreed with Manders’ views (perhaps the most chilling aspect of the play), such narrowness turns a character into a caricature—even more than the play’s actual fool, the hired workman Jacob (played by Diego Matamoros). Ultimately, the pastor’s inability to change his attitudes at all left us feeling disconnected.
That said, some of the other characters are heartbreakingly real: Mrs. Alving, played by Nancy Palk, and Oswold, played by Gregory Prest. Both have a burden eating away at their peace of mind, and begin the play with a simmering internal tension signalling something is about to break. Prest gives a wrenching performance as an overgrown child who is in desperate need of the mother he has been separated from. Meanwhile Palk puts Mrs. Alving through a quiet and understated torment, emphasizing how sadness and inner turmoil have come to characterize her life.
The set design by Ken MacDonald, a long-time collaborator with Panych, also contributes to the darkness of the play, even when it begins seemingly in the middle of daytime. There’s not an ounce of colour in it, and the stark lines of the windowpanes and cage-like columns stand in for the Mrs. Alving’s confinement, the prison cell that her marriage had become. And while there weren’t any actual ghostly apparitions in the script, the blurred reflections of the actors in the windows created plenty on their own. The set, coupled with Alan Brodie’s lighting, created some of the most arresting moments of the show.
While starting out slightly slow, once the family drama picked up and Prest entered the scene, so did the action. And while the particular kinds of skeletons the Alvings are haunted by haven’t changed, our understanding of them has. Despite the play’s solid acting, apt sets, and skilled direction, it is perhaps this generation gap that leaves us more confused than haunted.