These days, the fashion in adapting classical works for the stage is to be as free and open as possible, to treat the original text as a place for exploration – the play as playground. A classic play, seemingly stuck in its time, can benefit from a change of period or a make-over to the modern day; a director can get fresh insights into characters through improvising scenes with the cast; and language grown antiquated can be smartened up with broad strokes of contemporary idiom.
However, director Gale Edwards, who has recently completed her adaptation of Ibsen’s Ghosts for the MTC season, doesn’t belong to that school. She accepts that such a process can create ‘some sort of new and exciting concoction, which may be faithful to the general themes and ideas of the writer’, but she believes that they tend to scant the details, the subtleties. For Gale, who has adapted a number of canonical texts in her career, capturing the detail and intricacy of the original is where the challenge lies – and the enjoyment.
‘I love the exercise of doing it,’ she says. ‘I relish it. I think it causes you as an interpretive artist and director to dig deep into the specifics of the text. It took me ten weeks to do the adaptation and I would get a thought at two in the morning, rush out to my computer and type until dawn. It causes you to examine the play in enormous detail, because you have to justify virtually every single word. And there is an alternative for every line of the play.’
Gale knows no Danish, the original language of Ghosts, but she worked from a literal translation and about ten other English translations going back to the 1890s. All those versions, each different in subtle ways reminded her that being perfectly faithful to the original is a vain hope. ‘Any adaptor is by necessity an interpreter,’ she says. ‘No matter how much one stays loyal to the text, one finds oneself emphasizing certain things, because you are making a choice on every line.’
As a director, she is always aware of the actors and the audience, and they influenced her choices, too. ‘One of the things I wanted was a swift, speakable text. I didn’t want audiences to have a dense wordy and worthy night at the theatre. I wanted them to experience a dynamic, vivid human story presented in a real way.’
Gale Edwards is one of only a handful of Australian directors with an international reputation and career, directing productions for major theatre and opera companies at home, Europe and the US. She was an Associate Director with MTC in the early nineties and has returned a number of times, most recently directing Hitchcock Blonde in 2005. She had been wanting to return ever since, so it’s a double pleasure to be offered Ghosts, a play that has long been on top of her wish list.
‘I love plays with a strong literary basis, where words and language communicate deeply,’ she replies when asked to define the attraction of Ghosts. ‘I am also drawn by the fact that Ibsen tends to write strong and complex women in every one of his plays.’
The power of Ibsen’s writing, according to Gale, is his ability to give the lives of women the weight that the Greeks gave their tragic male heroes. Mrs Alving in Ghosts is one of Ibsen’s most intriguing and tragic characters, ‘a complex, majestic, vulnerable, fortified woman at the centre of the play.’
‘She’s a woman who has suppressed the truth about the past all her life. And had done it for noble and good reasons, because the society she lives in has required it of her. And just as she thinks she is going to reap the rewards for that sacrifice, her world comes crashing down.’
‘As I have written this adaptation, at every turn, I have found myself in awe of Ibsen,’ Gale says. ‘The construction is so intricate – the way he plays with hints for example, he’s always planting seeds that grow as the play goes on.’
Ghosts is playing at Southbank Theatre, the Sumner from 17 May to 21 June