Henrik homage

Ghosts (The Curators)

The Curators Vintage Pop-Up Theatre

July 19 – August 4

The Curator’s homage to great Norwegian playwright Henrick Ibsen’s controversial “Ghosts” is innovative from even the initial moments of its experience. Smoke haze meets the audience upon entrance into the Vintage Pop-Up Theatre in Red Hill’s St Barnabas Hall. In opening, characters emerge to move forward towards us from behind a makeshift plastic scrim screen. A menacing soundtrack signals the carpenter Engstrand’s (Warwick Comber) pressure of his daughter, Regina (Lauren Roche) to become a prostitute. Their resulting course language in brash interaction appears to be as jarring within the 1881 play, however, ultimately it does detract anything from the work as a whole, which is excellent in every regard.

Regina is maid to the widowed Helene Alving (Lisa Hickey) who is horrified to overhear Regina flirting with her beloved bohemian artist son Oswald (Patrick Shearer) who has recently returned from years of exile in Paris, where his mother sent him to avoid him being corrupted by his father. The layered story from there is of Helene who is in the final stages of opening an orphanage with her charitable partner, and the story’s moral compass, Pastor Manders (Tom Coyle) in memory of her husband Captain Alving. Regretful of staying with the debauched Captain out of social obligation, she thinks that opening the facility in his name will put to rest rumours, but also guarantee that none of his money will go to their son, whom Helene wants to inherit from her alone. It is a slow build to almost Oedipus territory as Helene determines to liberate her son from the ghosts of their past until things take a sudden turn in a tumultuous Act Two as the extent of Oswald’s suffering from the syphilis he ‘inherited’ from his father is fully revealed.

67175792_660991877700154_3667186829880197120_o.jpg

The tragic story of Helene and her son Osworld is a mythic one, especially as the two descend into the darkness of Act Two. As great works so often are, the play is full of contemplative themes and quotable dialogue about each of us being the ghosts of our past, and in The Curator’s hands this realisation stands strong as not just a tribute to Ibsen but to being human, through its highlight of the themes of duty, reputation and deception. The playwright’s advocacy and sympathy for women through inclusion of strong female characters is not diminished either.

The heavy material of “Ghosts” demands much from its actors and all members of the cast deliver in this regard. Act Two is swift but packs a big punch as hinted-at devastating revelations are unravelled, making the agonising ending quite affecting thanks in particular to Shearer’s powerful and precise performance in the show’s climatic scene. He is an expressive performer down to every possible nuance, especially when in wide-eyed defence of his hyperbolical La Boheme lifestyle. Indeed, his textured performance as the petulant painter is as polished as any I have seen in professional productions of Isben’s works. Also of particular note is Hickey who displays a commanding stage presence as the desperate secret-keeper Helene, possessed in the defence of her own child.

Dynamic make-up and detailed costumes serve as similar stand-out aspects of the polished production; the authentically-ostentatious but constrictive costuming is immediately noteworthy. And Bethany Scott’s lighting design serves as a frame for each of the show’s acts. Director Michael Beh’s set design is such that we see the play rip through the plastic wrapping of society not just metaphorically but literally, thanks to the initial plastic-wrap of furniture items which are repositioned in ‘reboot’ during blackout scene changes which provkes further interest.

Like many of Ibsen’s plays, “Ghosts” is a scathing commentary on 19th-century morality. Because of its subject matter, which includes religion, venereal disease, incest and euthanasia, it is an ambitious theatrical undertaking, especially from an independent theatre company, which makes The Curator’s production particularly outstanding. The show is not only exciting, but difficult to fault. The company brings the classic to life in a creative way, but does so in a manner that fosters refreshed audience interest in its playwright. While it may not be a mainstream manifestation of a work of realism and, therefore, is perhaps an acquired taste, its design elements are impressive and its performances are captivating, meaning that we can only await with anticipation what the company tackles for its next production.

All dolled up

A Doll’s House (La Boite Theatre Company)

La Boite Theatre, Roundhouse Theatre

September 6 – 27

Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” is a classic play, telling the story of how protagonist Nora’s seemingly happy marriage and family life becomes complicated by a series of secrets and lies. (Having broken the law by borrowing money, with forged signature and no male guarantor, she lives in fear of her secret being exposed.) And it is a timeless text for a reason.

“I think the best thing for me to say is as little as possible. I want to allow the work that Ibsen, Lallly [Lally Katz, the show’s playwright], the creatives, crew, cast and myself have done to speak for itself,” Director of “A Doll’s House”, Steven Mitchell Wright notes in his program notes. How odd it is, therefore, to then have the experience of the play hijacked by a final feminist manifesto from a modernised Nora, for while this seminal work has a certain contextual specificity, it also has an intrinsic universality. This is what has made it so enduring. So it in entirely unnecessary to sermonise as a lead-in to Nora’s famous door slam.

That aside, the show’s sterling touches are many. Ever the Steven Mitchell Wright show, the exaggerated, gothic-like aesthetic is rich in the opulence of Tim Burton-esque imagery, realised through internationally renowned Dan Potra’s design. The visual aesthetic is quite magnificent in its melodrama. Strung from the ceiling, the stage rotates though the three acts, tightening around the characters as Nora’s secret web of lies unravels their picture perfect lives.

10450685_10152455046343406_1652077865498721294_n

Victorian in demeanor, the characters are realised in hyper-realism. Hugh Parker is quite beguiling as the domineering, ambitious and moral patriarch Torvald Helmer, as patronising to his wife as the production’s conclusion is to the audience, but very much a product of his time. As his caged hummingbird, no longer singing, Nora (Helen Christinson) is presented as precious and porcelain-like, but broken (much like the three-legged chairs that corner the stage), all dolled up and delicate in her pink doily dresses.

10698693_10152455046993406_512711534148913214_n

Chris Beckey as Nils Krogstad, from whom Nora has borrowed the money, is a compelling villain, equal parts cartoonish and evil and his scenes with Cienda McNamara as Nora’s tough, world-wise friend Kristine are appealing in their comfort, despite the lack of eye contact or genuine interaction that characterises virtually all of the show’s dialogue delivery.

10247410_10152455046493406_2722618591333092142_n

Ibsen’s text is one of the most performed plays in the world (his global popularity, it has been said, is second only to Shakespeare’s). As important as conversations about feminism are, however, “A Doll’s House” is about so much more than this. Despite its focus on Torvald and Nora’s spousal relationship, its themes regarding the loss of identify are relevant to any relationship. Indeed, Ibsen himself didn’t see his play as feminist; he saw it as humanist. He thought every person, man and woman, had a right to be who they wanted to be. Thus, the show should be about universal happiness more than feminist realisation. And to distrust the audience with this, not only undermines the show’s earlier sophistication, but disrespects the intellect of its members.