Declan Conlon and Cathy Belton in Ghosts. Image Pat Redmond
Steeped in Sinéad McKenna's Nordic, white-wintered shadow, Francis O’Connor’s cavernous set establishes the physical and emotional geography for Mark O’Rowe’s version of Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts. A twilit haven in a bleak, desolate landscape. Sanctuary warmed by a small stove offering frugal protection against the rain soaked elements. If home is where the heart is, O’Connor’s glasshouse feels threadbare on warmth and life, reinforced by Aoife Kavanagh’s chilled sound design. Here, devoted mother Helena Alving and her son Oswald are reunited when he returns home. Yet Oswald’s broody demeanour hides a secret or two. Secrets being the flavour of the day. Which Pastor Manders, builder Jacob Engstrand, and his frustrated daughter Regina, maid to the Alvings, also conceal. As sins are made manifest, always it's women and children who suffer most. Good intentions often paving a road to hell.
Cathy Belton, Simome Collions and Calam Lynch in Ghosts. Image Pat Redmond
In the world of Ghosts, abusive fathers don’t result in well balanced men, but in needy Mammy’s boys who wrap their mothers around their manipulative fingers. Like Oswald, a failed artist returned home for unclear reasons. Calam Lynch’s broody Oswald no barrel of laughs. Still, he's the apple of his mother Helena's eye. Who stayed with his unfaithful father to protect the family from scandal, as advised by Pastor Manders. Given Oswald's gormless personality she could have been forgiven for trying to be rid of him. Which is perhaps why she is currently building an orphanage. A memorial to her dead husband, all for the sake of appearances. But Cathy Belton’s Helena puts paid to such nasty notions with a belting performance of a mother blinded by love and a sense of duty. Her precious Oswald only connecting with her when there’s no one left to turn to. As the final scene plays out, it pushes the emotional buttons. As it most likely would, due to its nature, whatever characters were involved. Thankfully, one of those is Helena, allowing Belton to beautifully break your heart.
Lorcan Cranitch in Ghosts. Image Pat Redmond
STDs. Euthanasia. Dysfunctional families. Conflict between duty and individual expression. What once shocked nations when first produced in 1882 barely raises a ruffle in this current version. Which begs the question why this version today? Who is it for? What does it have to offer a modern audience besides its theatrical and historical importance? Take Declan Conlon’s Pastor Manders. Priests no longer command moral authority on the modern stage, or anything remotely resembling a moral high ground. As for the moral low ground, many have fallen far lower than Pastor Manders. An anachronism trying to pass as a relevance, Manders neither commands nor earns either respect or resentment. Similarly, Lorcan Cranitch’s complex father figure, Jacob. In the hands of lesser performers both could well risk being dullness personified.
Kathy Belton, Simome Collions and Calam Lynch in Ghosts. Image Pat Redmond
Regarding the play's thriller-like aspect, its secrets are more aligned with melodrama than thriller, neither helped by a sluggish pace. An insurance policy ploy that might once have resonated as a battle between faith and materialism now plays as a plot device to set up an inevitable foreshadowed conclusion visible a mile off. One that induces about the same emotional impact as burning your toast. Meanwhile, conversations abound, informed by heightened self-awareness as characters view the world through blind introspection. Great at seeing the speck in the other’s eye, the log in their own goes unnoticed. Neat and tidily done, Rowe’s direction and language drain away much of the poetry for an unfussy directness. A trade off in which Ghosts comes to resemble a tale about The Big House, written as if Ibsen had been Irish. Lumberingly paced, it’s finally redeemed by its ending and its strong performances throughout.
Cathy Belton and Calam Lynch in Ghosts. Image Pat Redmond
Maybe Pastor Manders was right: the dissolute lifestyle of artists comes with a reckoning, which is visited upon Oswald. Or is it because of the sins of the father? What’s clear is that the status quo gets maintained. Ibsen is a playwright in a league of his own. As is Mark O’Rowe. But this version of Ghosts feels like water mixed with wine. The end result not watered down wine so much as wine turned into water. In the end, its real force lies with its two women; Belton’s superbly rendered Helena and Simone Collins’s independently minded Regina. Women doomed to be ministers to the needs of men.
Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen, a new version written and directed by Mark O’Rowe, in a Landmark Production and Abbey Theatre co-production, runs at The Abbey Theatre until May 13.