The Phoenix Players’ production of Ibsen’ Ghosts didn’t live up to the promise of its source as well as its promotional materials

Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’ Ghosts, written in 1881, was devised as a critique of Victorian era morality, a tale telling of the similarly condemned fates that await both the chaste and the licentious. When it debuted the following year, audience and critics had strong reactions to it, one even going as far as to call it ‘a dirty act done publicly’. Over a century later, Mumbai -based troupe The Phoenix Players brought their own version of Ghosts to town, finding the subject matter of patriarchy and sexuality as relevant now as it was then.

The two-person show didn’t stray far from the original premise of an aged lady trying to forget the ghosts of her past. Mrs. Alving, driven early on in her marriage to reconcile with her philandering husband Captain Alving by the well-meaning Pastor Manders, is setting up an orphanage in the memory of her now late husband. Her son Osvald, whom she hoped would be spared the inheritance of his father’s character, returns home after a stint abroad and takes up where his father left off. Along the way, the play tackles intense themes such as incest -- Osvald unknowingly has an affair with his half sister -- and repression, among others of a more Freudian nature.

But The Phoenix Players’ production didn’t live up to the promise of its source as well as its promotional materials. Whether the issue was one of spatial or of temporal adaptation is debatable, but Ghosts was neither outrageous nor thought provoking. The set was a barren one, inhabited by four chairs and a table at awkward angles to the audience. The dry leaves on stage served no visible purpose save to play up the titular significance when the characters moved. This was aided by the sound, of the Addams Family variety.

And while the leads, again for no discernible purpose and to little artistic avail, frequently walked into the shadows and out of the light, they remained the saving grace of the play. Salim Ghouse, in a triple role, and Anita Salim, in a double one, owned the stage and were very comfortable doing so. Ghouse elicited laughter frequently for his dialogue, including once for a rather insensitive line concerning farmers. His transition between roles was smooth enough, but towards the end the transition itself was questionable. Anita’s turn as Regina was suitable but as Mrs. Alving, her dialogue delivery tended to the monotonous.

Ghosts is a brave attempt at bringing a lesser known work of Ibsen’s to a local audience. It delves into the inner psyche of a different age and lays bare the psychological workings of a class of people.

At one point, Mrs. Alving confessed that she was haunted by ghosts. In some way or form, the audience is sure to be too.