TACKLING themes like incest, euthanasia, religion and venereal disease, the Norwegian play Ghosts was engulfed in controversy when it first hit the stage in 1882 – and it’s about to make a comeback.
140 years after its debut, Ghosts has been adapted by Perth playwright Eamonn Flack for a 21st century audience and is showing at the Melville Theatre.
By the second half of the 20th century, as society becomes more progressive and liberal, the Henrik Ibsen play enjoyed a reappraisal with some critics hailing it as a scathing commentary on 19th century morality.
Ghosts is still topical today with Labor MPs currently pushing to overturn a 25-year ban on voluntary assisted dying in the ACT and Northern Territory.
The play centres around widow Helene Alving, who has been drifting since the death of her charismatic but abusive husband.
She’s eagerly awaiting the return of her artist son Osvald from France, believing that her salvation lies in telling him the dark truth about his father.
But Osvald has his own murky secrets to share, and slowly the ghosts from the past come back to haunt the living.
Ghosts director Thomas Dimmick says they’ve crammed a lot into a new 90-minute version.
“It’s all about what has been left behind because of previous actions that have led to where people are today,” Dimmick says.
“There are a lot of discussions between the characters where they explore things, and there’s discussion of religion, of education of people’s place in society and the class system, and all of that comes out within the conversations between the characters and their own very different situations.”
An intimate production with a spartan set and only five actors, Dimmick says he was able to work closely with performers during rehearsals.
“Each of them have so much material to dive into, so much subtext to be explored in many different interpretations,” he says.
“It’s been great working with all the actors, to find the different ways of playing a scene and to find exactly what the emotional through line is in each moment.
“The play takes place in the one room across the space of less than 24 hours. So it’s really sort of simple and pared back, because it’s not so much about where it is, it’s about the words that are being said.
“What Henrik Ibsen was writing about back then, feels just as real and fresh today.”
In 1987 Ghosts was televised on the BBC in a star-studded production with Judi Dench, Kenneth Branagh and Michael Gambon, bringing it to a wider, mainstream audience.
With STD’s still rife in many countries, euthanasia a controversial subject, religion as divisive as ever, and lockdown prompting us to reassess aspects of our life, Ghosts is still relevant and topical.
“I hope the audience come away sort of questioning their own opinions and their own ideas, based on what they’ve seen,” Dimmick says.
“It’s a very cathartic experience following these characters, and they have some big highs and really big lows on their emotional journey, and you sort of feel that release with them.”
Ghosts is showing at the Melville Theatre, corner of Stock Road and Canning Highway, at 8pm August 5, 6, 11, 12, 13, 18, 19 and 20 with a 2pm matinee August 14. Tix at TAZTix.com.au.
by ARIANA ROSENBERG