By Alfian Sa’at
(1100 words, 15-minute read)
‘The Cave’, a converted bar and restaurant that is the venue for the performance of Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts, is small. Audiences sit on three sides, around five persons abreast, ever mindful that to stretch their legs would be to trespass into the performance area. How does one perform Ghosts in such a space, with its volcanic revelations, its pitiless abyss that yawns wide open in the final act and consumes its characters?
As the play begins, we see a lone chair in the middle of the space. It is a patriarch’s chair, specifically belonging to the late Captain Alving. In the course of the play, the characters orbit around it, as if it was the sun, or perhaps a massive star at the end of its life cycle, collapsing to form a black hole. And indeed Captain Alving is a ravenous absence, leeching ‘light and sunshine and glorious air’ from his wife, the dutiful Mrs Alving, as well as their son, Oswald, a painter tormented by depression.
His shadow looms large over their lives—Mrs Alving is desperate to renovate his posthumous reputation by establishing an orphanage in his name, all the while concealing his various debaucheries. As for the son, he is stricken by a hereditary disease, told by a doctor that ‘the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children’. But the figure of Captain Alving exerts only one kind of haunting. As Mrs Alving explains, ‘dead ideas, lifeless old beliefs … have no vitality, but they cling to us all the same, and we cannot shake them off’.
When Ghosts first premiered, it scandalised Ibsen’s contemporaries, with its blown-open cabinet of forbidden curiosities: (half-)sibling incest, venereal disease, attack on religious hypocrisy and euthanasia. Now, around 135 years later, our attitudes towards some of these previously contentious issues might have changed, but the play still retains its power to trouble, if not shock. This is due to its central question which has lost none of its urgency: how does one live an authentic life? One secures freedom in society by establishing a reputation untainted by scandal, but can one be truly free when there is no reckoning with the secrets of one’s past?
This tension between public propriety and private agonies is illustrated in the mise-en-scène. The actors stand in the space like in a tableau vivant, dressed in European-style costumes designed by Yoko Takeuchi. They could be figures in an oil painting, draped in jacquard and lace, fabrics tarred with black ink. One thinks of the sophisticated trappings of a European chamber drama.
Except that all this is sharply undercut by the performances, which owe more to Tadashi Suzuki’s concept of animal energy than to Stanislavskian realism. The actors, when speaking, address not so much one another or the audience, but various points in space. By doing so, they map out a space which transcends the physical limitations of the performance space, encompassing the remote horizons of memories and nightmares. Their presences are primal, whether that of Mrs Alving, crouching like a protective animal mother, or Oswald, curling up like a defenceless animal child. And when someone screams, it is the howl of a wounded animal.
The actors are all solid performers, balancing stylised gestures with the demands of realism in the text. They move, precisely and deliberately, with objects that carve the space and outline the contours of their characters—a smoking pipe, a watering can, a suitcase stuffed with papers. A particularly vivid image is of the actress Yuko Kawabuchi holding up a candle holder, her elfin and beatific face bathed in yellow, as the actors cry out that the orphanage has caught fire.
Special mention has to be made of the mother and son duo. Mako Mitsuhashi’s Mrs Alving begins her part as a corseted widow, before gradually transforming into a figure twisted by betrayal and regret. Snarling, spitting and stalking the stage, we witness her terrible realisation that she has been living in a cage of her own making. Takashi Okito’s plays Oswald as a man-child whose artist’s gloom is not so much an affectation as a profoundly tragic affliction. Crouching in his father’s chair in the final scene, one can almost see the light fading from his unblinking eyes before the stage lights begin to dim.
The portrayal of other characters are more unconventional. Takako Inoue’s Regina Engstrand, Oswald’s love interest, is mannish and taunting, her brassy glares telegraphing a barely suppressed resentment of her status as a maidservant. Yuhei Yokota appears to be too young to play Pastor Manders, the voice of pompous conservatism in the play. However, he delivers his lines while striking various poses that seem to demand concentrated feats of balance. The strain visible in maintaining these shapes signaled a character ill at ease with his public façade. And as sweat drips copiously down his nose and chin, we again see the animal emerge.
The other two actors, Kawabuchi and Yusuke Mori, read the stage directions, or sometimes stand in silently for other characters (such as Captain Alving, who does not appear in the original, or the carpenter Jacob Engstrand, whose speeches are excised from this version). Sometimes the lines meant for one of the main characters pass through their mouths. They cross the stage or linger at its periphery, realigning the planes of action and marking liminal thresholds.
It is always an instructive pleasure to see how a non-Western culture approaches a classic from the Western canon. In Theatre Company shelf’s GHOSTS-COMPOSITION/IBSEN, one senses a desire to engage with the very roots of Shingeki, the movement to modernise Japanese theatre based on European models. The starting point of Shingeki was, after all, the production of an Ibsen play, ‘John Gabriel Borkman’, in 1909, followed by ‘A Doll’s House’ in 1911. Those very plays were considered revolutionary, introducing the idea that actors had to serve the drama, rather than the drama serving the actors (the latter was the primary mode in Kabuki, the dominant theatre genre at that time).
And yet in shelf’s work, there is a reassertion of a Japanese aesthetic, lending to the play a minimalism and formalism that might not have been dreamed of by Ibsen. I think of Noh theatre, and how its stamping footwork—ashi-byoshi—is supposed to invoke the spirits from the earth. And indeed those Western spirits have surfaced, to possess the bodies of the Japanese actors in the play, like hands slipped into perfectly-tailored gloves. In good adaptations, one discerns not just the intelligence of its makers in matching consonant details, but also the sensuality of the fit.
GHOSTS-COMPOSITION/IBSEN was a production by Theatre Company shelf directed by Yasuhito Yano staged during the Performing Arts Meeting (TPAM) in Yokohama’s 2017’s Fringe programme in the City of Yokohama, Japan.
Guest Contributor Alfian Sa’at is a Resident Playwright with W!LD RICE. His published works include three collections of poetry, One Fierce Hour, A History of Amnesia and The Invisible Manuscript, a collection of short stories, Corridor, a collection of flash fiction, Malay Sketches, and two collections of plays – Collected Plays One and Collected Plays Two, and the published play Cooling-Off Day.