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Ghosts

Henrik Ibsen
Barbican Theatre
(2003)

Ingmar Bergman is best known in the United Kingdom as a film director. In his native Sweden, he has a high reputation for his stage work. This production by The Royal Dramatic Theatre of Sweden is a chance, albeit for only four days, for audiences here to see a sample.

The first odd experience is the translation. Rather than using surtitles, the director has recommended a simultaneous translation using small receivers and (rather uncomfortable) earpieces for each member of the audience. The translations themselves are presented very flatly allowing the tone and emphasis of the original Swedish to drift through from the stage.

Bergman is very much the auteur in this case, translating the play from Norwegian into Swedish but also heavily adapting it along the way. One is always wary of such director-led theatre but in this case, the result is powerful.

The set, designed by Göran Wassberg, is very traditional, much green furnishing with a real backcloth showing a rather stylised, comfortable house interior. A turntable is cleverly used to bring the right characters to the fore as Arvo Pärt's chilly music tinkles.

The tragedy of the Alving family is still shocking today. In the 1880s, it must have been much more so. A
philandering husband may have been nothing new but the unnamed syphilis that he passed to wife and unborn son certainly wasn't. Similarly, the hint of incest to add to adultery must have ensured that very few productions were permitted in the early days.

In this production, Bergman deliberately eschews almost all action. As Helen Alving (played superbly by Pernilla August) talks with the man that she still loves, Pastor Manders (played almost equally well by Jan Malmsjö), they sit together in a scene straight from a Bergman film. Similarly, when the younger couple, Osvald and Regine (played by Jonas Malmsjö and Angela Kovàcs) talk, there is rarely much movement.

The effect of the generally static direction is that when the ghostly scenes occur and the lives of Alving Senior and the maid that he got pregnant, Johanna, are seen to be repeating in Osvald and Regine, a little action goes a long way and has a drastic impact. Similarly Osvald's final tragic euthanasia-assisted suicide has all the more effect as, in abject despair, he writhes nakedly on the floor.

This is a relatively low-key production of an extremely moving and powerful play. The way in which a weak, dissolute man can destroy everyone with whom he came into contact is very powerfully portrayed and the directing style is unique. A visit is a must for anyone who has admired Bergman's film work or wants to get a taste for it.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher