Thursday, September 14, 2006

Review of Ghosts (Stratford 2006)

Ibsen's Ghosts is an intense play. A young man is coming to terms with his impending death from syphilis and his growing understanding of how he contracted the disease. A young woman is trying to resist the manipulations of the man she believes to be her father to turn her into a whore. A woman who endured life with a dissolute husband is trying to put to rest the ghosts of the past. The ending leaves two of the characters in such a tragic dilemma that audiences don't clap right away - it takes a few minutes to absorb the situation before being able to re-enter the world outside the play.

The first time I saw Ghosts was the 1977 Stratford production starring Margaret Tyzack and Nicholas Pennell, and it has remained in my memory as one of the great theater experiences of my life. It was also one of the great audience experiences of my life - I and the entire audience seemed to be reacting as one. When the current fell, I felt that every person in that audience was holding their breath in a great shared emotional experience. After a minute, at the same moment we all burst into thunderous applause.

The performance I saw tonight was the polar opposite. Oh, the acting was good, more than good. Martha Henry and Brian Hamman, as the mother and son, were magnificent. Martha Henry created a character of such depth and subtlety that I will remember the mother as someone I knew well. Peter Donaldson, who with Seanna McKenna and Scott Wentworth is my favorite Stratford actor, was mesmerizing as the priest. The direction and set were wonderful. The play had all the power and insight of the first time I saw it. Where everything went horribly wrong was the audience.

The audience laughed. It was like being in a TV sound stage during the taping of a sitcom. They tut-tutted the paternalistic priest, chuckled knowingly or oohed and ahhed at horrific revelations the characters made to each other, and roared with laughter at everything said by the nasty man pretending to be a father. They, or at least some proportion of them, apparently thought that the play was a light-hearted look at the bad old days of female oppression. Finally, in the last 15 minutes, the last die-hards seemed to realize that it wasn't funny, and they shut up.

Is the modern audience too stupid for Ghosts? Perhaps that's why it isn't often produced. Or did I just have the misfortune see the play with a bunch of drunks?

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