“Ibsen’s realism becomes almost too close for comfort in our proximity to the drama which we become so much a part of”Holly Holt

Ghosts is an adaptation of the Ibsen play, Gengangere, by Director Josh Cleary. Originally published in 1881, it was met at the time with fierce criticism of its tabooed content. Cleary tells me his version is about “a family ripped apart by the past, and the woman who tries to keep everything together as her life falls apart. Set in 90s London, it deals with themes of AIDS, forbidden love, and a mother who has to carry out an impossible task for her son – taking his life before it’s too late”.

Watching a rehearsal of Ghosts, I was immediately captivated by the complexity of the characters’ relationships. The relationship of mother and son, portrayed by Kim Alexander and Zach Myers, is tense and electric. The forbidden love between master and servant translated to a same-sex relationship that makes Ibsen relevant again. Zach talks about it as a “play of omissions”: it is the unspoken threats that drive the characters.

We talk about the title Ghosts and what it means to the characters. For Alexander, Helene is “haunted by the past” and unable to escape the “demons” that have followed her throughout her life. We watch her having to confront them and I am struck by the balance that Alexander strikes between social restraint and evident vulnerability. The awkwardness and unhappiness between mother and son is entirely offset by the naivety of Oswald’s love for Rex. It is hard to believe these actors have only been rehearsing for a couple of weeks because they seem to understand their characters so well.

Cleary has updated the play, working from the original translation so that Ibsen’s play shocks as much as it did when it was premiered. To achieve this Cleary is keen to make “it sound as natural as possible”, allowing the actors to shape the text as they go, working to find the flow and rhythm of the words. This freedom, as a result of being an adaptation, means the actors can make the lines work for them, breaking down the distance between the text and the characters’ emotions.

Pembroke New Cellars perfectly captures the suffocating upper middle class environment and the minimal set makes the seating feel like an extension of the room which the characters inhabit. Ibsen’s realism becomes almost too close for comfort in our proximity to the drama which we become so much a part of.

The question of making Ibsen relevant is answered in this adaptation as updating the concept of the play forces us to consider the reality that these issues are still very much prevalent today. This is heightened by the fact that there will be collections at the end of each show for the Terrence Higgins Trust which is dedicated to tackling HIV. This is a show that promises to be incredibly moving and one not to be missed.

Ghosts is on at Pembroke New Cellars, 20-24 February