Review by Carol Rocamora
Beware the wrath of Henrik Ibsen: it’s striking the Brooklyn Academy of Music like a thunderbolt from Odin, destroying every living thing in its wake.
The mighty Norwegian playwright has been a regular at BAM for years – but this season his presence is particularly powerful, thanks to Richard Eyre’s fiery production of Ibsen’s Ghosts and its fierce indictment of conventional Norwegian society at the end of the 19th century.
Eyre (former artistic director of the Royal National Theatre) has adapted this 1881 classic himself, condensing it into ninety riveting minutes as devastating as any Greek tragedy, complete with a catharsis. Ghosts tells the story of Helene Alving, a wealthy widow with deep secrets in her past that come back to haunt her. They are brought home by her son, Oswald, who has returned from abroad for the 10th anniversary of his father’s death, which Mrs. Alving is honoring by building an orphanage in his name. No sooner does Oswald appear in the doorway, pipe in hand, looking just like his father, than the evil spirits of the past are unleashed again in that doomed household.
In a series of riveting scenes between Mrs. Alving and the local Pastor who has come to bless the orphanage, we learn that the late Mr. Alving was not a man worth honoring – far from it. A web of lies about his past – as well as Mrs. Alving’s and the Pastor’s – is revealed, as well as the “sins of the father” that have literally infected the son, Oswald. Past has polluted the present, and as a result the Alvings’ world (again, literally) goes up in flames.
At the heart of this anguished play is the institution of marriage, cornerstone of the stifling, rigid Norwegian society – a convention that must be upheld at any cost, no matter how diseased and punishing that marriage is. As it turns out, the Alvings’ marriage was a sham. Mr. Alving was a profligate, a sadist, a drunk, and a womanizer, and Mrs. Alving fled after one year, throwing herself at the feet of the Pastor, then a young seminarian with whom she was passionately in love. Though he returned her feelings, the cowardly Pastor was too fearful of scandal, so he turned his back on her, forcing her to return to her terrible marriage and hide the truth of it. She even sent Oswald away as a young child, to protect him – but, as the final terrible secret of the play reveals, it’s too late. Oswald – and the truth – have come home to roost.
“We are all to blame for society’s ills,” said Ibsen. In Ghosts, everyone plays the part in upholding the social conventions that kill. “There is no light here – no joy, no life”, Oswald says to his mother. But it is too late. In the play’s final anguished moments, the stage awash with the fiery red glow of a devastating dawn, Oswald begs for the sun he cannot see and for his mother to do what she must do to end the curse on the house of Alving.
The cast is uniformly superb, featuring Leslie Manville (of Mike Leigh film fame) giving a heartbreaking performance as Mrs. Alving, matched by Billy Howle as the tortured Oswald, and Will Keen as the unrelenting Pastor. Tim Hatley’s striking set features the severe interior of the Alving home, its chandeliers glittering, its gleaming floors as treacherous as black ice.
Indeed, fire and ice are the plays’ unifying metaphors – elements that in the end destroy everyone. In the program notes, director/adaptor Richard Eyre quotes from Robert Frost’s poem as follows: “Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice….” For Ibsen, a world without sun, without creativity was – like his Norway – a world of darkness, without hope.
Ghosts, by Henrik Ibsen, adapted/directed by Richard Eyre, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music through April 26, www.bam.org
*Photo: Stephanie Berger