Ingmar Bergman’s “Ghosts” isn’t exactly Henrik Ibsen’s. The celebrated Swedish filmmaker, who has announced that this production, making a brief visit to the Brooklyn Academy of Music, will be his last for the stage, has set reverence and reticence aside and approached the great Norwegian playwright’s text as a mere template.
He has radically cut the play and freely adapted it, inserted a scene that doesn’t appear at all in the original, interpolated dialogue from a pair of Strindberg plays, reimagined the characters in stark and startling new terms.
Bergman, who has a long history with Ibsen, seems to see the playwright as an artist struggling toward a deeper and more frank expression of the drives that motivate his characters and the forces that have shaped their psychology, much as the play’s Helene Alving has struggled to free herself from the conventions that have warped her life. Bergman has taken the liberty of completing the transition, according to his own lights, of course. The results are pretty extraordinary.
As promised, here is a “Ghosts” that, for once, doesn’t labor under the constricting corset of 19th-century dramaturgy: the genteel dialogue, the carefully plotted exposition, the thunderclap revelations timed like clockwork. It takes the stage in bold strokes, and pulses with stylized but emotionally convincing life. The characters have been freed to dispense with the masks of propriety that Ibsen’s style, grounded somewhat against its will in the naturalism of his theatrical age, imposed upon them. Their stunted personae have been put under a magnifying glass; their neuroses and afflictions are not exaggerated or distorted, just fully exposed.
Mrs. Alving, most significantly, is no longer the gently smothering mother, but a woman of sometimes chilling cynicism and emotional complexity, with a painfully tortured relationship to the son who has returned to the homestead after years of exile. Pernilla August’s alternately hot and cool but always intense performance is deeply in tune with Bergman’s vision; they peer beneath the surfaces of the doting mother of Ibsen’s original and reveal something more disturbing.
This Mrs. Alving scarcely seems to interact with her son until the play’s final, harrowing scene. (The role of Osvald has been trimmed to increase the play’s focus on Mrs. Alving’s psychology.) She sees in him, all too clearly, the ugly reprobate who fathered him, and is clearly repulsed — and haunted by insidious guilt for her revulsion.
The guilt derives from the damage done by emotional neglect. Mrs. Alving’s decision to send her son away so he wouldn’t see his father’s corruption isn’t simply a noble sacrifice here. When August speaks triumphantly of the day she freed herself from her husband’s dominion and took “control” of the household, we can easily see how erasing the son who reminded her of the father might have satisfied her own needs, too. Bergman also has interpolated a scene between the maid Regine (a sharp Angela Kovacs) and Helene that further amplifies Mrs. Alving’s character and draws a stark parallel between the opportunistic young servant and her well-born mistress.
The results of Osvald’s life of emotional neglect are obvious: His corruption is far more pronounced here, too. He is not the doomed artist, adorned with a halo of martyrdom, that Ibsen created, but an emotionally crippled man who is all too visibly the ghost of his sinful father. (Jonas Malmsjo wears “Night of the Living Dead” makeup, aptly enough.) His relationship with Regine, so tentative and hopeful in the original, is here corrupt and plainly sexual.
And yet August’s Mrs. Alving is far from a repellent figure. The clarity and sharpness of the performance infuse the character with a humanity that smoothes away her hard edges. Withdrawing suddenly into moments of anguished silence, her eyes fixing on some painful specter in her mind, she is clearly a woman haunted by her own failures — her failure, above all, to pursue self-fulfillment through love.
There are bursts of warmth here, too. That Mrs. Alving’s aborted relationship with Pastor Manders has continued to haunt their lives is bluntly illustrated when Helene enfolds him in a sexual embrace. And yet there is something almost threatening in her affection: Sifting through the ashes of a life warped by Manders’ fear and hypocrisy, Mrs. Alving seems wickedly intent on tormenting him with both the damage he’s done and the love he chose to forsake.
The drama unfolds on a set upholstered in dark green, surrounded by a trompe l’oeil curtain that’s like something out of the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland. The characters themselves act like ghosts, hanging around in the shadows eavesdropping whenever possible. A turntable keeps the set’s furniture in motion, suggesting the inescapable nature of their fates: What goes around, comes around.
So it is apt that Pastor Manders, played with fragile unction by Jan Malmsjo, should be the cause of the conflagration that leads to the play’s conclusion; it was he who helped pile the tinder under Mrs. Alving’s life, after all. And it is gruesomely apt that Mrs. Alving should be forced to acknowledge the destruction she has inadvertently wrought, too, by helping her son to take his own life. Long ago she struck the match that set her own hopes for happiness ablaze.