Sucking the life out of “Ghosts”

As my Modern Drama class progresses through the Ibsen canon, I’ve been dipping into the BBC Video series, The Henrik Ibsen Collection.

Their presentation of A Doll’s House, starring Juliet Stevenson was wonderful, and so this evening, when I saw the cast that had been assembled for Ghosts (Judy Dench, Michael Gambon, Kenneth Branagh, Natasha Richardson, and Freddie Jones), I settled in for an anticipated treat. One that was, alas, not forthcoming.

I lay the blame at the feet not of that excellent set of actors, but at the director, a certain Elijah Moshinsky, who completely sucked the life out of the play.  He appears to view Ibsen as nothing more than as stern and serious, and completely missing his irony and comic characterizations.

Ghosts is not a moralizing sermon of a play, it is a satire of a society that prefers covering up ugly truths with homilies and burying one’s head in the sand rather than facing up to reality. Even though the tale is a tragic one, satires should be funny, and almost every opportunity that the playwright offered up was dropped on the floor by this director.

The cast of five is almost equally balanced between tragic and comic figures. The main characters are poor Oswald Alving, now dying of congenital syphilis and his mother Helen, who married too young and too enthrall to the church (and a particular pastor) to live the full life that her husband desired. She suffered an unhappy marriage and the shame of watching a bastard child of a maid grow up in her household. While these two are the main tragic figures, they have their moments of humor as well. as Oswald is a virgin and therefore can’t figure out how he has syphilis, and Helen is still carrying a torch for her priest, and ironically founding a home for bastard children in her husband’s honor.

On the other side of the equation, we have two comic characters, Jacob Engstrand, an old reprobate who always manages to come out looking like a rose, and his adopted daughter, Regina, whose figure is newly busting at the seams and who is looking for opportunities to turn it to her advantage.

Caught in the middle is the main object of Ibsen’s satire, Pastor Manders, who is a lily-livered moralist more concerned with his own image in society than in doing the right thing. He’s very much in the mold of Torvald Helmer, Nora’s husband in A Doll’s House, but without any of Torvald’s redeeming characteristics. He scolds Mrs. Alving for allowing her son to become an artist, and is constantly bamboozled by old Engstrand.

Engstrand’s machinations to become proprietor of a bawdy house (carefully disguised as a home for wayward sailors) and Regina’s attempts to flaunt her assets are both ripe for comic relief from the tragic illness of Oswald, but Moshinsky will have none of that. Gloom and darkness there is aplenty, but the dark humor that sparkles in the text is completely missing.

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