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A CurtainUp Review

Ibsen's Ghosts at BAM
Les Gutman
A few years ago, I saw Andrei Serban's production of Hamlet at The Public Theater, in which the ghost of Hamlet's father was rendered in triplicate. I wondered then why that was and found no satisfactory resolution. Ibsen employed the plural, "ghosts," in his title, referring to that of the senior Mr. Alving, late husband of Helene Alving (Pernilla August) and father of Osvald (Jonas Malmsjö),and the maid with whom he sexually cavorted under their roof. We now have Ingmar Bergman's production of Ghosts which, depending on how we count, exposes two or three additional ghosts.

Bergman has made up Osvald to look like a ghost (pasty white face makeup, a lesion in his forehead and grayish costume) and, in the first half of the play in particular, has him behave like one. When we first see him, he has been obscured by the back of a sofa in the Alving parlor, until a stage turntable rotates him into view. (It's the only excuse for the turntable, which becomes cumbersome when used thereafter.) During Mrs. Alving's lengthy sit-down with Pastor Manders (Jan Malmsjö), Osvald periodically slinks through the periphery of the room unobserved. Before the intermission, when Osvald's randy behavior with Regine Engstrad (Angela Kovács) conjures up with father's misdeeds, Bergman doesn't let the action occur offstage (as Ibsen did); he brings it into view. But what are we seeing? Is it the real, spectral-appearing Osvald? Or is it a demon?

It's a fascinating twist introduced by Mr. Bergman, whose announcement that this is his final stage play ("...At 85 years of age and after 60 working years, 126 dramatic events, 50 films for both TV and screen, 49 radio plays, and a number of books and scripts, I feel that I can bring my career to an end -- and I wish to complete it while I can walk out of the theater on my own.") adds to the appeal of this production. And it's not the only clever input Bergman has added to the play. But some of his tinkering strikes me as less successful, hence two other lurking ghosts: Ibsen himself (Bergman makes it clear in program notes he is very much aware of this presence) and Ibsen's contemporary and Scandinaviananavian playwright Strindberg (some of whose dialogue Bergman has massaged into this play).

At the root of the problem is a misconception of cause and effect, and thus of the significance of Ibsen's play in which the past informs the future. It is true, famously, that Ghosts was a shocker when unveiled. And thus Bergman judged that he needed to translate that sort of scandal into 21st Century terms. In that (bringing to the surface that which was veiled a century ago), he is wrong, and comes up short in any event. The secrets and lies (to steal an expression from Mike Leigh) of the Alvings don't require explicit exposure to affect us, and the motivations to which Bergman gives short-shrift in this adaptation deprive the play of a good deal of its own impact.

This production nonetheless treats us to some astonishing performances. In particular, the expressive Ms. August is ravishing, in the most powerful definition of the term, and Jonas Malmsjö's Osvald is harrowing. Bergman says his version of Pastor Manders is "no longer a clerical parody. He is a frightened and emotionally confused human being". Would that it were so: Jan Malmsjö portrays him mostly as a clown, an impression driven home by an outlandish purple costume that seems like it was borrowed from The Joker in Batman.

My expressions of dissatisfaction shouldn't undercut Bergman's experiment. It's revelatory, at the sunset of his career, in its willingness to rethink and risk. And it underscores the treasure in its source.
Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton Street, Brooklyn (Ashland/Rockwell)
Telephone: (718) 636-4100
June 10 - 14, 2003
English translation (simultaneous via headsets) by Charlotte Barslund
Reviewed by Les Gutman based on 6/12/03 performance

class="f"> The Original London Review
A loving wife is not her husband's judge.
-- Pastor Manders
It is a once in a life time opportunity to see Ibsen'sGhosts directed by the great film director Ingmar Bergman who is now in his mid 80s. For just a very few performances, as a part of the BITE season at the Barbican comes The Royal Dramatic Theatre of Sweden's production of Ghosts. It is probably my favourite of Ibsen's plays. I first saw it as an 18 year old and it deeply affected me, this terrible story of a young man condemned to syphilitic dementia because of the dissolute behaviour of his father.

The production is in Swedish with continuous translation into English conveyed via state of the art headphones. It is not ideal. I know the play quite well and maybe would have listened to the Swedish without the translation were it not that this version is adapted by Bergman and we were promised several changes, differences from Ibsen's original using some of August Strindberg's lines from a piece about a "gigantic maternal monster". In order to grasp these changes we had no choice but to listen to the translation. So, lost in the translation are the voices of the Swedish actors as it is impossible to listen to both. They are skilled interpreters, but it isn't like listening to Scholfield or Ashcroft. And when at one point Mrs Alving (Pernilla August) says that the book she is reading has empowered her, you realise the language is 100 years after its time. Continuous translation reminds one that missing is the word skill of literary adapters from Hare to Stoppard. Double whammy then.

So what new emphasis has Bergman brought to the classic play? The main one is the emphasis on truth and lies. Mrs Alving in trying to protect her son, has lied to him about his father. She continues to lie, blaming herself for her husband's going off the rails. I will let Bergman's own words describe his approach to the character of Mrs Alving. "Mrs Helene Alving is a Nora "(from A Doll's House) "who never slammed the door, victim as well as executioner, sophisticated liar and merciless truth teller at the same time (she is thus closely related to other dangerous women such as Hedda Gabler and Rebecca West)." Maybe a woman is not the best person to review this impartially?

Add Bergman's comments on Parson Manders (Jan Malmsjö) (one of the most stupid and hypocritical characters in all literature who is totally taken in by the craven and manipulative Jacob Engstrand (Örjan Ramberg) ) To quote Bergman, "Pastor Manders is no longer a clerical parody. He is a frightened and emotionally confused human being." Bergman's justification for this that Ibsen's inserted these crude characters whose function was to make the audience laugh in the middle of the turmoil. Well in Bergman's production, the emotionally confused Manders brushes against Regine's (Angela Kovács) breasts and comments on how much she has grown, filled out. We all know what he is thinking. And, yes the audience laughs.

I have seen Mrs Alving played over the years as both a hard woman consumed by bitterness and one who tried to do the best for her son, but never have I heard such a condemnatory description of her. Does this man have mothering issues?

There are many small differences. One of the problems when you alter the classics is the amount of time spent on comparison to the original rather than criticism of the whole. Like those twin cartoons where you have to circle the dozen discrepancies. Here Manders has a wife when Mrs Alving flees her husband. If you vilify Mrs Alving, you make Regine less grasping. Osvald never talks about blaming his Parisian lifestyle for his illness because his mother let him believe his father was a paragon. The destruction of the orphanage is less dramatic and rather a non event. It is not disclosed that Manders failed to insure the property nor that Mrs Alving has put every last penny of the money she inherited from her husband into the orphanage, not out of philanthropy but a desire to rid herself of anything to do with him. The final mother-son scene is over extended. Osvald strips off to show madness, no longer a shock on any London stage.

Osvald is dressed in grey, his face chalky white with a drip of blood on his forehead running from the parting in his hair like one of those human statues who scare tourists in Covent Garden when they move. It is as if he is already a ghost. I didn't like Regine and Osvald tumbling onstage at the end of the first act. I prefer this scene to be played off set so that hearing the flirtatious laughter, Mrs Alving is carried back twenty years to the memory of the sound of her husband seducing the nanny. The shock of the physical presence of Osvald and Regine in a state of undress is less ghostlike and more like "in yer face".

The set is a depressing and oppressive green velvet covered floor, chairs, walls, sofa, even Mrs Alving's knitting is green. A turntable neatly rotates the chairs.

Of the performances, Pernilla August is a very young looking Mrs Alving. Her performance is generally understated but she also shouts and screams with anger more than any Mrs Alving I remember. Jan Malmsjö's pastor is older and irritating, consistent in his advice to everyone to do their duty. His gullibility over Engstrand shows how easily fooled he is. Jacob Engstrand is like a character out of Dickens with Uriah Heap-like humility. When he tells the pastor that the men would appreciate a church service to celebrate the completion of the orphanage, we wince at how he is not seen through by Manders. Regine too curtsies so low to Manders on his arrival that she almost goes into a kow-tow and she pretends to cry at the thought of the responsibility of running the sailors' home. She may not be his daughter but she has learnt something from Engstrand. I liked Osvald's sickliness from his very first appearance stretched out on the sofa and tucked up in a blanket.

I notice that the actors playing Manders and Osvald have the same surname making me wonder whether they are father and son. Now that would be an interesting twist to Ghosts. Of course the syphilis connection wouldn't work. Or would it? Maybe Manders contracted syphillis from Captain Alving in a brief fling at university? In this production, Manders says to Mrs Alving, "You and he (Captain Alving) became the essence of the pure, beautiful and unobtainable." Sounds like homo-eroticism to me. I wonder whether Ibsen would be as incensed with Bergman's rewrite? Please go and see this production and let me know what you think.

Written by Henrik Ibsen
Translated, adapted and directed by Ingmar Bergman

With: Pernilla August, Jonas Malmsjö, Jan Malmsjö, Örjan Ramberg, Angela Kovács
Set Designer: Göran Wassberg
Costume Design: Anna Bergman
Lighting Designer: Pierre Leveau
Sound: Jan Eric Piper
Music: Arvo Pärt
Running time: Two hours forty five minutes with one interval .
Box Office: 020 7638 8891
Booking to 4th May 2003
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 1st May 2003 Performance at the Barbican Theatre, Silk Street London EC2 (Tube Station: Barbican)

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