Memory plays a very significant role in theatre. Memory as remembrance and as the past keeps coming back over and again to what Marvin Carlson would call The Haunted Stage (2003). Carlson takes the lead from Herbert Blau’s provocative observation about theatre’s ghostliness (1987) that as spectators “we are seeing what we saw before” to remark that “all plays in general might be called Ghosts”, with “the images of the dead continuing to work their power on the living, of the past reappearing unexpectedly and uncannily in the midst of the present”. Memory shapes-reshapes and/or draws-redraws the empty space of theatre.
The theatrical space—be it a conventional walled proscenium or a vast stretch of open land—interacts with memory to produce meanings, if any. That’s the impression one will probably form after seeing the performance of the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts by the fifth semester students of Theatre Arts Department, Sarojini Naidu School of Hyderabad University. The production, guided by Anuradha Kapur, one of India’s celebrated directors, with Sarika Pareek and Firos Khan, uses “memory as material.” As the three guides note in the playbill, “The students made work on several theamatics: memory as landscape, memory as object, memory as recapture.”
Premièred on December 8 to kick off the three-day international roundtable on “Ibsen and Theatrical Modernity: New Dramaturgies and Performance Manifestations” and attended by thirteen academics and theatre practitioners (including the author of this review) from Bangladesh, India, France, Norway and South Korea, the performance was configured like a series of experiences on the site of the Department. The Memory-space interplay was mediated through characters; hence the production simultaneously intertwined three forces, both physical and metaphysical—the open strip of land, the department’s corridors, backyards as well as the rooftops, and the humans and of course memory. The students’ production of Ghosts featuring a journey from the burning house to the burning ghat literally made the spectators “co-players” as it asked them to walk with the performers to different sites of performance. They became so integral to the performance that to someone seeing the event from a distance it might as well have appeared that they were a part of the same production team.
The “dig” into the Ibsen text begins with a sequence aptly titled The Burning House in which a house burns down to ashes. The next sequence, Exhuming, digs up the secrets of the Alvings, the Engstrands and Pastor Manders. Bones reveals the family connections of the characters. The episode called Nightmare Mrs Helene Alving speaks of the condition of her marriage, the Graveyard depicts Mrs Alving tending the graves of her memories. In Edge Engstrand persuades Regina to join his hotel business.
Memory or the work of remembrance is of paramount importance in Playground. In this episode Captain Alving, Mrs Helene Alving, Oswald Alving and Pastor Manders replay their lives. Confessions on the Steps move in the same direction as Mrs Alving once again confronts her past in it; the sequence is a soul-search and Mrs Alving tells Regina about her precarious position in the Alving household.
The next sequence, Flood shows Mrs Alving’s drowning by her sorrows while Ambulance depicts an Oswald who is overpowered by his illness. An agonised Oswald is desperately in the lookout for light—“the sun, the sun.”
The Department’s rooftops are used as the burning ghat, the final episode of the performance. The sequence is a fitting finale as it shows how the intertwined lives are turned to cinder. Thus the journey comes full circle, from the burning house to the burning ghat, from one fire to another. Whether the fire is an emblem of destruction or it heralds a new beginning, “baptism by fire,” remains open-ended.
Conceived of as an epic, this refreshing take on Ibsen’s Ghosts is a remarkable adaptation. It shows how an Ibsen text can be used as an inspiration for making performance in pursuit of contemporary realities by the new generation theatre activists. Kudos to the students, the guides and the faculty of Theatre Arts Department of Hyderabad University for an absorbing performance!
Dr Ahmed Ahsanuzzaman is professor of English and the Director (in-charge), Fine Arts Institute of Khulna University. A theatre enthusiast, Ahsanuzzaman obtained both his MPhil and PhD from Oslo University, Norway. His recent publication includes a special volume, Translation Studies: Exploring Identities co-edited with Professor Fakrul Alam of Dhaka University and published by writers.ink in 2015.