July 21, 2019
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.
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.
July 24, 2019
Ibsen's Ghosts continue to haunt
The Curators remain indie theatre with a difference, plenty can dip into a little Shakespeare, put on a beloved musical or update Brecht or Noel Coward but this is not for The Curators. If Shakespeare is on the agenda well they'll completely revamp it, and so far they've sought out Chekov and now Henrik Ibsen. With two of the three pivotal figures of early modernism in theatre adapted, another work from Strindberg can't be far behind.
These are historic playwrights, important in the development of much that carries on today, but still from a distant past. They cover social hierarchies, religious influence and lifestyles that can be hard to understand or have resonate with a modern audience. Yet human nature does not change and certain truths will always resonate.
Like Chekov's Uncle Vanya before it, Ghosts by Ibsen starts off with a bewildering disorientation, who are these people and what is going on? Yet the predicaments of these characters slowly unravel in front of the audience and before one knows it, they are caught up in finding out what their fate will be.
Helene Alving (Lisa Hickey) is eager to see her son Oswald (Patrick Shearer) home from studying abroad in Paris. Part of her household staff is Regina (Lauren Roche), daughter of the sailor Engstrand (Warwick Comber). This father and daughter team seem coarse and ambitious but not without their own cleverness and noble intentions.
Constantly bickering with all of them is Pastor Manders played by Tom Coyle whose devotion to ideals and morality may make him a bit of a drag but also ultimately a tragic figure. Nobody is perfect, but by God, at least they're all trying in their own way and this is the most moving aspect of the script and performances.
As a result, this is a much easier and accessible production to get into from The Curators and the design of the show only helps to make it a more evocative piece. Staged at St Barnabas Parish in Red Hill, the look of the place is perfect for that time period.
Sound effects and lighting maintain the atmosphere of everyone being shut in by the rain. Yet it is the ghostly effects created from lighting and the hall being split by a wall of plastic which really excel, bringing to mind the work of film-maker David Lynch. It is a little unpleasant and otherworldly and totally spectacular.
Sadly while these effects are fantastic they are few and far between, for long stretches, scenes fade to black only to have furniture moved around when lit up again.
It is also worth noting that the Church pews start to become a little uncomfortable after a long period of sitting on them and given that a sizeable portion of the audience is of an age where creature comforts are to be savoured perhaps future productions could consider different seating arrangements.
Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen as adapted by Michael Beh continues the ambitious work of The Curators to bring classical texts alive for our modern times, In more simply conveying the emotional truth of the story and increasing the abstract aspects of their mise-en-scene, they may have created their most successful attempt yet.
July 24, 2019
People so quickly forget their past selves.
Helene Alving's married life has been held together by lies, but with her only child Oswald returning to Norway from his bohemian artist's life in Paris, Helene hopes to liberate them both from past taboos after one final gesture of duty to her famous, but secretly debauched, late husband. When Pastor Manders arrives to discuss the business of building an orphanage in his name, the secrets of the past begin to unravel, and Helene must face the decisions and deceptions that have haunted her and understand that they can never truly be exorcised.
Written in 1881 by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen and initially banned from performance due to its discussion of sexually transmitted diseases, incest, euthanasia, and illegitimate children, Ghosts is a play about the destructive nature of secrets and the social codes rooted in religion, sexism, and ideas of morality that feed and enable this destruction.
The Curators, a group of independent Brisbane-based professional artists who work to bring new life to classical theatre, enable Brisbane audiences to experience the city's first professional production of Ghosts in 30 years. This production, adapted and directed by Michael Beh, made heavy use of symbolism and ran the first two Acts of the play together with the final, foreshadowed revelations taking place in a fast-paced final Act after interval. Modern coarse language added an extra harshness and crassness that emphasised the intentions of the characters but did not always feel natural against the rest of Ibsen's script.
Michael Beh wrote in his Director's Note that his adaptation adds an extra mythic element to the work: "Five revenants are pulled into a world. They are to play out the tragic story of Mrs Helene Alving and her son Oswald. They do not want this. The scenes keep rebooting…and tomorrow they will do it again. And again. And again." This take on the script resulted in uncanny scene changes and interludes as the revenants returned to the story or tried to separate themselves from it. Touches of paint on the faces and hands of the cast added to the ghostly effect, and the plastic-wrapped furniture of the set gave the eerie impression that the story was already over, the ending predestined, and that these apparitions were living out a script that had really concluded long ago.
Stepping into The Curators Vintage Pop-Up Theatre at the St Barnabus Anglican Church hall in Red Hill, with the church having been built at around the same time that Ghosts was written, we were immediately engulfed in the gloom and ambience of the play. Lighting design by Bethany Scott and operation by Bella Wright, including total blackouts during scene changes, contributed significantly to the unnerving atmosphere, as did the plastic and painting by Design Bordello and sound design by Brian Cavanagh and Nick McMillan.
The costuming of the Alvings and their maid Regina, bedecked in lush fabrics and symbolically removing layers throughout the production, contrasted with the paint-spattered jumpsuit of the carpenter Engstrand and the plainer attire of Pastor Manders, all designed by Michael Beh and with Jan Mandrusiak and Lisa Hickey in wardrobe.
The cast of five performers demonstrated absolute mastery of tension in this performance, and made full use of the space as well as employing pantomime, song, and slow-motion action to draw the audience further into the story and its emotional and physical settings. Lisa Hickey brought significant variety to the role of Helene Alving, by turns flirtatious, coy, maniacal, possessive, and tormented. Patrick Shearer was riveting as Oswald, languidly unpredictable but increasingly unkempt, frightening, and violent as his ideas of the past unravelled around him. The scenes between Hickey's overbearing Helene and Shearer's spoiled, unhinging Oswald were standout – the intensity and fury in their interactions made it almost difficult to watch.
Lauren Roche was smug and sexually aggressive as Regina, and her singing was unexpected and impressive. Warwick Comber was self-assured and intimidating as Engstrand, to the extent that even audience members wanted to avoid his gaze in the intimate performance space, and Tom Coyle embodied the decorous and devout Pastor Manders, a personification of social codes' disregard for individuals, and the way they are reinforced through blind piety.
Ghosts is intense, intimate, whites-of-the-eyes theatre that left me feeling breathless long after the doors were opened, and we had stepped back out into the Queensland sunshine. This adaptation by The Curators is wonderfully chilling, skilfully disturbing, and well worth experiencing for yourself.
July 24, 2019
'Ghosts' was harrowing.
It is rare to find a production which so entirely and successfully transports the audience from one world to another. Every element needs to meld seamlessly from the acting, costuming, set, lighting, space and narrative. The Curators' adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's 'Ghosts,' was that production, a theatrical work which was virtually flawless from beginning to end.
'Ghosts' is a harrowing tale of family secrets which have long been buried. When Helene Alving's artistic and promiscuous son returns from years abroad in Paris, trauma begins to reveal itself and the family's tumultuous past resurfaces. 'Ghosts' traverses the line of metaphorical ghosts which haunt the mind and the physical world with dazzling effectiveness.
Director Michael Beh has created a new, modernised and abridged version of Ibsen's iconic work. Originally banned in 1881 when it was first written, The Curators newest adaption of 'Ghosts' unapologetically embraces the disturbed characters which can still shock audiences, 183 years after Ibsen created them.
Beh has updated some of the language within the script and set the production in a liminal time period. Costuming and props hark back to the original production yet reference to dollars and the occasional F-bomb drop pulled audiences back to the present day. Despite these changes and shortening the script from three acts to two, Beh has been successful in maintaining the integrity of Ibsen's original work and presented a production which is not afraid to embrace the alternative.
Effective performance creates an experience from the moment an audience enters the theatre to the second they exit. Beh certainly delivered with a stunning movement and lighting sequence taking place as the audience filed in. The stage was split in two with a curtain of plastic creating a scrim-like effect and directional lighting casting stunning shadows. Each character was individually introduced as they disjointedly moved throughout the space. The disturbed and stylised mood of the performance was established from the beginning and effectively maintained throughout the duration of the production.
Not a second was wasted, movement lost or words thrown away throughout the piece to the credit of Beh and the highly skilled cast.
Lisa Hickey as Helene Alving presented her character's overly possessive mind with emotional intelligence and balance. The character could easily be overplayed, however, Hickey navigated the line between stable and insane with commendable skill.
Tom Coyle as Pastor Manders commanded the stage despite the character's naturally quiet nature. His portrayal was perfectly balanced against the other larger-than-life personalities and his presence was appreciated as a representation of the mentally sound. In contrast, Warwick Comber as Engstrand filled the stage in stature, voice and presence. Comber embodied the frightening character fully however also allowed audiences to peer into a gentler facet of his personality.
Lauren Roche was unnervingly beautiful in her portrayal of Regina, a character who is equally as twisted as those who inhabit the house. Roche's tension of movement and incredible physicality added a new level to a character which was less developed in Ibsen's original iteration.
While every actor was exceptional in their performance, Patrick Shearer as Oswald was the most striking in physicality, voice, emotion and presentation. Shearer commanded the stage with exceptional skill and presented a character who was entirely twisted from the inside out.
Since the production was of such high quality, small moments where attention to detail lacked were highlighted. Sections of the plastic which covered the furniture had visible logos which broke the illusion of otherworldliness that was so effectively created in the space. When Helene Alving removed her son Oswald's shoes, the 'bonds' logo of the socks was clearly visible to half the audience who all laughed in response. These small issues could be easily addressed for the remainder of the season and would allow the magic of theatre to be fully maintained from beginning to end.
'Ghosts' by The Curators did not try and be alternative as many productions do. Every moment was used to further the narrative and maintain the characters. The unorthodox nature of the production simply followed naturally. 'Ghosts' by The Curators is truly a theatrical treat for Brisbane audiences.