Henrik Ibsen: Ghosts
Citz artistic director Jeremy Raison talks to about his new production of Ibsen’s fascinating but seldom performed tragedy Ghosts
Fellow Norwegians Henrik Ibsen and Edvard Munch may have been born 35 years apart but, for a brief moment in the late 19th century, their artistic eras collided: Munch – who was yet to create his legacy, ‘The Scream’ – designed the set for Ghosts, a new Ibsen play that premiered in Chicago in 1882. It’s a tale that’s gleefully accounted by Jeremy Raison, artistic director of the Citizens’ Theatre and director of a new production of Ghosts set to be staged at the venue in May. ‘Obviously, Munch’s set was pretty extraordinary because he was such an extraordinary artist,’ he says. ‘It was all deep reds and oranges but I think it would be quite difficult to watch a play in that environment.’
Raison studied at the University of Bristol under the lauded Ibsen scholar John Northam (father of actor Jeremy) but has never actually directed any works by the playwright until now. Despite the innate bleakness of the plot – think Greek tragedy shrouded in Norwegian gloom – Raison says that he is enjoying the experience of directing Ghosts, having stumbled upon Amelia Bullmore’s new translation of the work, first performed at the Gate Theatre in London in 2007, which he describes as ‘fresh and contemporary, even though it is set in a historical period’. What’s more, the director claims to have landed his ‘dream cast’, with the lead role of Mrs Alving being played by Maureen Beattie, whose performance in Liz Lochhead’s Medea in 2001 and subsequent work with the RSC’s Histories ensemble has garnered much praise.
This background in tragedy should serve Beattie well as she tackles the role of the upstanding woman in Norwegian society haunted by her dead husband’s adulterous past. Having sent her son Oswald away to protect him from his father’s treachery, his return makes the issues of incest, venereal disease and euthanasia stark realities in her life. But while Mrs Alving’s plight may have been scandalous to audiences of the 1880s, does Ghosts still have the ability to shock today? ‘Not in the same way,’ Raison says. ‘It was shocking specifically because it brought up the subjects of syphilis and incest, which were taboo at the time. Mrs Alving also has a fairly challenging view of religion and all of these things were subjects you might have thought of at the time, but you’d certainly never speak about them.’
So far, reports suggest that Ghosts is selling well and that’s not just due to the presence of Beattie, an actress whom Raison describes as ‘legendary’. He says: ‘Although Ghosts is one of the great Ibsen plays, I think very few people will have seen it. People tend to have seen A Doll’s House or Hedda Gabler, but Ghosts is not performed a lot – it’s not been done up here for 10 to 15 years.’ Yet Ghosts’ status as a seldom performed classic doesn’t seem to faze Raison. ‘I’ve directed a lot of new plays and in those, you don’t even know that it works. With this, you just trust the play and work on the acting and staging … It’s like when you do Shakespeare – you just have to do your version.’
Ghosts, Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, Wed 13–Sat 30 May.