UNITED PLAYERS, Jericho Arts Centre, 4th - 27th November
My Two Pence
My Two Cents
By Robert Blackburn
To do Ibsen perfectly is a difficult feat. Many tropes could be fallen into that turn this well-oiled and ultra naturalist script into an amateurish soap opera. This was my fear going into United Players' production of 'Ghosts', however I was pleasantly surprised that I wasn't rolling my eyes and cringing at unfocused, raging actors. They managed to avoid turning it into a daytime soap drama but they also never really hit the heights of what the material provides.
The decision to perform in the round I assume was taken to supplement the imagined claustrophobia of Mrs Alving's living room with the added dimension of the audience bearing down on the actors. It makes sense but the direction within the playing space not only didn't utilise that effect but the characters seemed lost at times – walking in strange diagonals to present to different sides of the theatre. I understand the need to show a bit of everything to the audience but no one walks randomly that much in their own house.
Mrs. Alving, played by Tanja Dixon-Warren was very watchable when she was still and not playing with the furniture – what the furniture had done to the actors I have no idea but it seemed under attack for the duration of the play. When she relaxed into the role, the fumes of haughty anger over her lot in life and her relationship with her son came through significantly. I would have liked to have seen a more loose and even contented Mrs. Alving at the beginning instead of being a little too mannered with a fixed arm movement overplaying itself every few lines. She has the whole estate, her husband is gone and business plans are afoot. The worry of her son having returned is of course there but have that running underneath.
This complaint I suppose sums up the failure of the play to ascend out of a “yeah, it was alright” reaction. The choices made, the relationships shown, were all very safe, very obvious. There was no undercurrent of explosiveness or charged desires running through the narrative, the material wasn't embodied in their cells. The actors just presented the writing, even literally with Linden Banks carrying the script with him on stage. Having taken on the role mere days before Opening his effort was commendable and during the few instances he lost his place he didn't allow himself to lose the moment of the scene. His stand-off with Mrs. Alving at the end of 'Act Two' was the most beautiful instance of the night when they both precisely realised the chance they had lost from their youth.
Michael Vairo's Jacob was effective and played the ailment of his leg brace without pushing it too far. Elizabeth Willow, the maid, seemed to flip-flop between moments in her relationship with Oswald, which would be acceptable if she was changing her tactics to get what she wanted but what she wanted was never made clear. Did she want to leave? Stay? Fall in love? Who knows? Oswald played by Francis Winter was disappointing. He chose a physicality to portray the character but it never went beyond bare technique, never rooted in truth. His build up to the play's climax could have gone in a different direction as well. It's a monumental decision and it should be the sanest, most-controlled decision he's ever made; he should be fighting for that control within himself throughout. It's here that he is ultimately defeated by his father's immoral life choices and he should have the audience's hearts (and his mother's) in his hands and he never got close. Much like the majority of the play.
By Josh Dafoe
I find myself for the second time paired with a very serious Brit that assures me on this outing that Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen is a "classic" and I must therefore hold it to a higher standard. To which I say the Queen may be on our money, but she doesn't tell me what pant leg I put on first in the morning. If a show entertains and takes me away to a different time and makes me forget, if even just for a second, that I am in a playhouse and actually connects me to what is happening on stage - classic or not - then it has done its job. The United Players did not accomplish that in this production.
Choosing to do theatre in the round will always have its challenges to be sure; sight lines, actors running the risk of lines not being heard if they are facing the wrong way, even trying to do too much can make an actor look like they are a spinning top constantly trying to project to all the audience around them rather than just inhabit the scene. That being said none of those were the real issue here, instead I felt like I was watching a boxing match but instead of the actors fighting each other they were incredibly intent on running to the four corners and touching anything they could get their hands on while there. Perhaps some took the old advice of "if you're upset, punch a pillow" to heart because I have never seen a throw pillow so manhandled. By the end of the show I figured it might have been the most sympathetic character
with the constant abuse it took.
Of course I would be remiss to not talk about the performance of Linden Banks who played Pastor Manders. I was simultaneously impressed and thoroughly distracted by his performance due to the fact that at one point he was so close I could actually read along with his lines from the script he held in front of him. If you've ever seen someone who is not off book you know it robs you of seeing what they are capable of, but at the same time I was mentally giving the man a high five for getting as far as he had done with only taking the part a week to opening. There were real moments, but the moments were shattered with that simple glance down to see what word comes next forever reminding us we are just watching an almost ready play.
Tanja Dixon-Warren, who played Mrs. Helene Alving had a very commanding presence, but she too made me feel like we weren't seeing her true capability. I could see her talent and yet she never seemed to open up and give us much depth, instead delivering her lines with the same cadence when confronted with death as when she'd talk of paperwork. A woman in control to be sure, but there must be more than one layer. I imagine the production had challenges with the last minute changes.
The supporting cast had moments of strength with Micheal Vairo being a master at his station in life, hat in hand while asking for a favor and not overplaying his crippled leg. Props to the props-master by the way,
the brace looked fantastic.
This show is an unpolished apple, spots showing, but still edible.