Mark O'Rowe's version of Ghosts delivers metaphorical gut-punches to its audience.
The Abbey Theatre is absolutely buzzing with people on the opening night of Ibsen's Ghosts, rewritten and directed by playwright Mark O'Rowe, who helped co-write the TV adaptation of Sally Rooney's Normal People. The play stars well-versed actors such as Cathy Belton, who has starred in a variety of plays and television series over the course of her career, as well as Calam Lynch, who has featured in Derry Girls, Bridgerton, and Mrs Wilson.
One of our good friends at the Abbey warned us upon arriving that this was going to be a heavy play, and that it rivalled the popularity of A Doll's House dramatically, so with these words ringing in our ears, we prepared ourselves for an emotional night.
As the whole theatre took their seats, everyone on edge for what they were about to bear witness to, the expectations were as high as the ceiling, and let me tell you, those expectations were met, and then some.
Why you should go?
While the go-to Ibsen text is A Doll's House (with good reason, it's a story that stands up even 140 years later) Ghosts has a much more sinister tone. As each secret is revealed, the stakes get higher and higher, and it becomes clear why this is a story made for the stage rather than the confines of a book.
Rowe gives this 19th Century Norwegian story a fresh, Irish feel, delivered by so much more than just the Irish accents and vocabulary, that one cannot help but notice the echo of some of our own issues with the church, both past and present, even all these years later.
Whether you're a frequent theatre-goer or not, I strongly recommend you head to Ghosts.
Set the scene
The entire play takes place in the Alving home, in a room that resembles a conservatory, so we're able to witness the rain that falls almost constantly throughout the entire performance, and acts as a sixth character to this five-person ensemble.
People come and go through the glass doors, as well as observe the soon-to-be open children's orphanage, which is an important thing to note for later in the play. Staging weather and disasters such as fire on-stage is no easy feat, and the Abbey's performance of Ghosts was able to achieve both what looked to be seamlessly. Their manipulation of light and sound to affect the mood of the audience and to pair with what was happening in the story was also simple and masterful.
Ibsen's Ghosts was first published in 1881 and appeared on stage in 1882, three years after A Doll's House first premiered. During this time, Ibsen appeared dissatisfied with the hypocrisy of Norwegian culture, and in particular had disdain for the church, at least that's what his texts seemed to suggest. Knowing this helps inform on the story of Ghosts, which is a tale about the sins of the father, the battle between a sacred moral compass and a secular one, and the decline of Christianity.
Ghosts follows Helena Alving as she's on the verge of opening an orphanage in her late husband's name, despite the fact we learn he was abusive and unfaithful. The opening draws their only son, Oswald, home from Paris, but his time away has made him cynical and disillusioned when it comes to religion. Pastor Manders, on the other hand, is assisting Helena with the orphanage and insists she does not need to insure the building as it will imply they lack faith in God.
In the meantime Helena's maid, Regina, is resisting her father's insistence that she come away with him and help him run a haven for sailors (which subtly or not is code for a brothel), as she is hoping to go away to Paris with Oswald. But Oswald is hoarding a secret, which explains his return, that will change his and his mother's life in devastating ways.
Essentially every character in this play is harbouring a life-changing secret that has the power to derail another character's life, and the story resembles dominos crashing into one another, causing mayhem with every revelation.
Spoiler alert for those unfamiliar with the play - you've been warned!
For a cast of five, every actor put on an incredibly strong and convincing performance, particularly in a story that demanded so much of them. Regina (Simone Collins) held her own in intense scenes with her father Jacob (Lorcan Cranitch) and Oswald (Calam Lynch) while Jacob and Pastor Manders (Declan Conlon) both provided brief moments of comedic relief in a play that you would think would not allow it.
However, Oswald and Helena (Cathy Belton) were nothing short of magnificent, in the final ten minutes especially. The emotional weight behind their performances was astounding, and unalike what you commonly see on stage. The cries Helena lets out as she holds Oswald, once his disease has rendered him incapacitated (a performance on Calam's part that was undoubtedly difficult and distressing to act out) were something each spectator could feel in their chest; even the least empathetic person in the world would struggle not to be moved by Helena's despair, as she wrestles with the request Oswald made of her moments earlier - to put him out of his misery or not.
While it was an incredibly difficult scene to watch, that I am still thinking of it almost a week later means it has to be the highlight for me. A truly incredible achievement for both actors involved.
There is a sign language interpreted performance on Friday 5th May at 7:30pm, as well as an audio description and captioned performance on Saturday 13th May at 2pm.
The Abbey has wheelchair access, as well as seating that doesn't require steps. Those with accessibility issues cannot access the Abbey bar, which is upstairs, but staff can organise for drinks to be brought down to them, and there is a coffee bar on the ground floor.
How long is it showing for?
Ghosts will perform at The Abbey Theatre until May 13th.
Tickets to see Ghosts range from €13 - €45 and you can purchase them for their website.
What a performance. Those are my immediate thoughts. Every show I've seen at The Abbey has been amazing, but there was an emotional poignance to Ghosts, particularly in the final ten minutes. While this is not a play about Ireland and its fraught relationship with the church, the story cannot help but speak volumes to our own struggles in a way that makes Ghosts particularly relevant, nearly 150 years after its first performance.
This is a tough play to watch; there's no getting around that, but to witness such a gifted cast pull off scenes that would be hard to achieve on-screen, with multiple takes, let alone live on stage, was nothing short of a privilege. Knowing these actors had performed several nights of previews already, and had another month of performances to go, and managed to retain composure and emotion that felt entirely authentic and fresh, was beyond impressive.
Once again, I am astounded and moved by stage performance in a way that never fails to surprise me, despite the love I've felt for it for many years, and Ghosts only makes me more excited for whatever the Abbey decide to stage next.
Header images via Instagram/abbeytheatredublin