Ghosts ***1/2

The Citizen’s current production is the funniest, most enjoyable production of Ibsen’s Ghosts that I have ever seen.

If that opening sentence puts you off or implants any doubts whatsoever, do not attend because you will be heavily disappointed, finding fault after fault.  Whenever one thinks of Ibsen, words such as ‘grim’ and ‘heavy-handed’ come to mind, words that come nowhere near describing the experience one will have with this production.  If, however, the opening sentence means little or it whets your interest, then you may be pleasantly surprised.

Ghosts was revolutionary, and it is perhaps one of the most important plays written in the last 150 years.  It was incredibly brave for its time in its frank discussion of taboo topics like infidelity, incest, the state of marriage and the venereal disease of syphilis, but it was also ground-breaking for its stark realism.  Many of its original audiences had never seen conversations onstage that seemed natural and took place in real time.

For a modern audience, these concepts are almost clichéd.  The shock of ‘kitchen sink dramas’ has been replaced with reality TV, and real time action now describes an American agent running around and shooting people against a ticking clock.  So how does a modern theatre company address this classic play: does it treat it like a museum piece and play by the original rules, or does it look for a new way in, a way that feels more up-to-date?

Jeremy Raison’s production makes a clear choice of the latter.  Rather than highlighting heightened realism, he has found ways of making the situation feel larger than life, turning some of Ibsen’s characters into caricatures.  He has also chosen a translation that is slimmer than the original and uses language that feels modern.

These are not necessarily bad choices, but they certainly undermine a classic interpretation of the play, which might be what many are expecting.

Whether one likes the interpretation or not, it is hard to find fault with Maureen Beattie’s Mrs. Alving.  It is easy to forget how much of a feminist Ibsen was, and Mrs. Alving was one of his greatest creations.  One of the biggest shocks when the play premiered was in having such a free thinking woman as a lead.  A modern audience might find far more sympathy with her past plight, but time has not cheapened the depth of the character, and in that regard Beattie’s performance is rather thrilling, progressing from shrewd business manners to hysterical fear in 90 minutes.  It’s an excellent performance that is far more layered than it first appears, and for that Beattie should be commended.

The other performances are more hit-and-miss, for the other four players are not able to throw off the constraints of caricature.  Everyone has at least one moment where they shine, and those moments show the true power that the script can have when played straight.  But for the majority of the production, it feels that style tends to triumph over substance a few too many times.

Ghosts is not a classic production, but it is a modern and accessible one.  Its strengths far outweigh its weaknesses, but the air of comedy haunts this production like the very ghosts that haunt these characters’ pasts.  Its concept works better than one would think, but it isn’t quite as successful as it clearly hopes to be.

Playing at the Citizens until May 30, 2009.

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