Matinee. Still at the Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. Court House Theatre. Directed by Neil Munro, who also adapted the play from a version by “Charles Archer” (thus, the program), dating from 1891.
It was a pleasure to see, in two successive performances, Patrick Galligan in Shaw and Ibsen: as Bluntschli in Arms and the Man, on Thursday night, and as Rosmer in this play on Friday afternoon. This production is played in a three-quarter-round space in the small (under 400) Court House Theatre — and played by a brilliant cohort of actors, three of whom we saw just the previous night in Arms and the Man: Peter Hutt, the Major Petkoff, as Alex Kroll; Peter Millard, the Nikola, as Ulrich Brendel; and Galligan (as mentioned). The other three actors in this six-character play were Patricia Hamilton as the elderly Mrs Helseth, Waneta Storms as Rebecca West, and Douglas E. Hughes as the radical newspaper editor, the “foreigner,” Peter Morten. The play is very lucidly directed by Munro, whose English version also has a crisp, idiomatic concreteness that never falters and serves Ibsen superbly well.
It is as gloomy a play as Ibsen ever wrote. The more these characters strive after freedom and self-realization, the more they become victims of a looming, inevitable, heavily weighted fate. And, as in Sophoclean tragedy, that fate is a doubly decisive one, the result of a combination of cultural and social pressures that become impossible to ignore or avoid and self-contradictory elements deep in the psyches, or the souls, of even those who strive most energetically to wrestle with or avert them. Ibsen’s characters seem doomed to unhappiness from the very day they are born. The plays begin at the eleventh hour of their long, troubled lives, and conclude fifty-nine minutes, if not a full hour, later. In the meantime, so expert and taut is the dramatic structure, the net in which they have become inextricably enmeshed, that the whole of their previous lives is brought back to view, to a second life, in the course of this final, conclusive hour — simultaneously for their own benefit and that of the audience, who are the hapless witnesses of this action.
Munro understands this well, as do his actors. It is a near spell-binding process, fully engaging, moment-to-moment, for the audience. One seldom sees or feels such a strong, unerring link, like a nylon cord stretched almost to breaking, between two or three actors in a tension-filled scene. The running time of this production was exactly two hours and fifteen minutes (inclusive of the one interval in the middle of Ibsen’s four-act play), but as we came out of the theatre it felt like a good three hours, so intense was the performance and so intense our engagement with it and our deep feelings of sorrow and perhaps anger too over the irony and helplessness that by the end of the play hangs pervasively, like the darkest of clouds, over the proceedings.
Clearly, Ibsen has it out for the idealists of the world; where there is idealism, there will we most find hypocrisy and, in addition, inadequate self-knowledge. Ostensible selflessness is surely always a mask for the ugliest egotism. Yin and yang, in Ibsen’s grey universe, are the alternative — or alternating — states represented by the Gyntian and Brandtian polarities of consciousness and action. The dynamic of their interaction can be perceived both in the individual and his or her divided, conflicted consciousness and in the surrounding culture.
In this particular dramatic example of Ibsen’s art and craft, the playwright’s hand is as sure as ever. One can sense the tremendous, unflagging discipline that he exercised over himself in creating and articulating the six characters of his play and their superbly balanced and meticulously timed interactions. Notwithstanding the passage of a century and more of time and the development of the English language over that same long period, I felt I had been granted rare insight into the very heart of a play whose unflinching view of the wreckage of nineteenth-century aspirations toward progress and personal freedom inspires mortal fear and trembling.