Searching for answers

Reuben Hilder (Oswald Alving) and Terry MacTavish (Helene Alving). Photo: Alan Dove Studios.
Reuben Hilder (Oswald Alving) and Terry MacTavish (Helene Alving). Photo: Alan Dove Studios.
It has taken a lot of thought and searching for Louise Petherbridge to direct Ibsen’s classic Ghosts. She tells Rebecca Fox she is up for the challenge of the Globe’s next play.

To direct Henrik Ibsen's Ghosts, Louise Petherbridge has had to ask some searching questions.

''Some plays are very deep and very demanding. None is more deep than this.''

She likes to know the full story even if it is not part of the play, so if something does not add up in the storyline she is reluctant to take it on.

A prime example was her previous play at the Fortune Theatre, Lucky Numbers, where an old woman talks with a young friend about motorcycles.

''It was very funny, but how did she know that stuff. If I play it, I've got to work out why. It's rather like it with this.''

Taking to the stage for the Globe's production is Terry MacTavish (Helene Alving), Reuben Hilder (Oswald Alving), Emmett Hardie (Pastor Manders), Kimberley Buchan (Regina Engstrand) and Nigel Ensor (Jacob Engstrand).

Ghosts was written by Ibsen in 1881 and more recently adapted by Richard Eyre, who describes the subject matter of the play in an article in The Guardian as ''about patriarchy, class, free love, prostitution, hypocrisy, heredity, incest and euthanasia''.

At the time of its original publication, there was an outcry of indignation against its attack on religion, the defence of free love, syphilis and the mention of incest. Large piles of unsold copies were returned to the publisher, Eyre said.

In England, the Lord Chamberlain, the official censor, banned the play from public performance but there was a single, unlicensed, ''club'' show in 1891 which detonated an explosion of critical venom.

Ghosts was written when Ibsen was living in Rome in the summer of 1881 and was published in December in Denmark. Eyre said he anticipated its reception: ''It is reasonable to suppose that Ghosts will cause alarm in some circles, but so it must be. If it did not do so, it would not have been necessary to write it.''

It was the mention of the son being infected with syphilis by his father with whom he did not have any direct contract that had Petherbridge questioning this play.

''Once I did not understand much about medical matters, I would have refused to do the play as it looks shonky.''

However, she had discovered, as Ibsen must have known, that syphilis can be transferred to a child through their mother at birth.

''He must have had quite advanced medical knowledge even that long ago.''

It was not surprising the play caused such controversy as, for its time, it confronted issues kept private and not spoken about in ''polite company''.

''It was about keeping up appearances at all times, no matter the consequences.''

While the woman in the play realises her husband is ''ghastly'', part of the problem was religion and the social constraints of the day prevented him from exercising his joy in life, she said.

''There were all these religious pressures on people and anxiety about the judgement of others.

''Bit by bit they come undone during the course of the play.''

Given Ibsen based the play in Norway where they are obsessed with the weather, The Globe is going to use special effects to echo the darkness of the script.

''The weather will engulf the audience.''

Even today some of the issues raised in the play are relevant, Petherbridge said.

''Even now, people need to be frank about life. The concept of the sin of fathers visited three or four generations down is a fairly stern warning that holds good today.''

It also confronts how women treated other women in those times and how far a mother will go to please her son.

''It is really interesting working with the actors ... to try and bring that kind of concentration to the characters in the play.''

To see
Ghost, The Globe, Dunedin, May 11-20. Question and answer session with cast and crew after the matinee on May 14

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