Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts is advertised on The Mill Arts Centre’s website as ‘the original Scandi-noir’ which feels somewhat disingenuous. Not because I dislike Scandi-noir, but because the two most obvious features that genre shares with Ghosts, the Scandinavian landscape and the bleak tone, are also the two least interesting things to talk about when discussing Ghosts. And Ghosts has been discussed extensively since it 1882 opening performance. Whilst initial reviews were scathing, the play’s since been hailed as a true classic, which made me somewhat nervous entering the theatre, since a major issue with the classics is that they’re often hard to do well. Fortunately, I needn’t have worried, since the Banbury Cross Players delivered a thoroughly engaging interpretation of Ibsen’s work.
Before going further, I shall address the original text itself: a scathing, brutal critique of nineteenth-century morality that rails against the ineffectiveness and hypocrisy of religious leadership as well as the oppression of women within society and their inherent vulnerability within the domestic environment. Thematically, Ghosts is a deeply angry play, and this, combined with a cast of emotionally broken characters trying to cling to any kind of stability, results in an intensely claustrophobic atmosphere. This effect is aided by the fact that the play never leaves the confines of the Alving household, and Ibsen’s decision to focus all of the action in a single domestic environment helps implicitly draw the audience towards the same conclusion shared by several characters: that it is the domestic environment itself that is the enemy.
Whilst I have great admiration towards the play, my enjoyment might have been stifled had the production itself been poor. Fortunately, the Banbury Cross Players delivered a highly accomplished performance. The production itself is a modernization, and whilst I know some people are generally opposed to production companies presenting modern depictions of older plays, the contemporary take in this case demonstrates how relevant Ghosts’ themes and much of its subject matter feel even today. Were it not for the few stray instances of certain characters ‘arriving by steamer’, this production could quite easily have convinced someone unfamiliar with Ibsen that they were watching a modern play.
The acting is also worthy of commendation: Hillary Beaton gives a particularly emotionally charged and engaging performance as Helen Alving. Ben Harwood also delivers an impressive portrayal of Osvald Alving, conveying the duality of someone consumed simultaneously by fatigue and frustration. I was, initially, slightly worried that Phillip Croxson might be a wooden Pastor Manders, though I eventually warmed to his performance. Ultimately, I’d even argue that he effectively conveyed the Pastor’s weakness and insincerity, though I still felt that he was somewhat overshadowed by other members of the cast.
I began this review by disputing Ghosts’ association with Scandi-noir, but I will at least admit that if you like Scandi-noir, there is at least a decent chance you will be engaged by the narrative’s emotional drama and bleak worldview. That being said, if you don’t like Scandi-noir, you should still give this show a chance. It’s a good production of a masterful play that at the very least deserves your attention.