Following the success of her Glass Menagerie with Eamon Flack, actor Pamela Rabe reunites with the director to explore the knottiness of Ibsen’s Ghosts. By Harry Windsor.
Pamela Rabe is on the phone, the morning after opening night of the new production of Ibsen’s Ghosts at Belvoir. Without a trace of actorly effusion, she says: “I’m really looking forward to settling it in.”
The show’s previews have afforded the cast, which includes Robert Menzies alongside Rabe, opportunity to tweak the work extensively, a process she likens to “popping grapes”.
It’s a phrase she picked up from director Annabel Arden, the co-founder of British touring theatre Complicité, during rehearsals for The Art of War at the Sydney Theatre Company, where Rabe was a member of the short-lived Actors Company from 2006 to 2009.
“When a thing is starting to congeal and galvanise, suddenly the little moments that you need to attend to become really apparent,” she says. “You learn a lot about the story you’re telling collectively, and the audience is helping you tell that story.”
Ghosts is one of Ibsen’s knottiest works, one “that has no bottom”, according to Rabe. She stars as Mrs Alving, a survivor of violent abuse at the hands of an unfaithful husband, dead for 10 years when the play begins.
We meet the widow drawing up plans for an orphanage with the assistance of the doctrinaire and judgemental Pastor Manders, played by Menzies. Getting the place insured won’t be necessary, he says; it might look like faithlessness. No prizes for guessing what happens next.
Once the object of Mrs Alving’s affections,
Manders proves a censorious scold, lecturing her about everything from her attitude towards marriage to her son’s louche lifestyle and even her reading material.
Returning from Paris to join them is Mrs Alving’s twentysomething son, Osvald (Tom Conroy), who was sent away as a small boy to shield him from his dissolute father. Osvald represents a mother’s hope for the future, and consolation for past suffering. But the father’s legacy cannot be outrun, his mother learns – the boy was born with syphilis.
The play was published in 1881 to outright derision. “It was called an open wound, an open sewer of a play,” says Rabe, who is reuniting with Eamon Flack, the man who directed her on the same stage in a superb production of The Glass Menagerie in 2014, a dual Helpmann winner for Best Play and Best Female Actor.
She remembers sitting with Flack in rehearsals, even then plotting what they could collaborate on next. So why Ghosts?
“It’s a play I’ve loved for a very long time, and I was waiting to be of an age where I could tackle it. In the words of Pastor Manders, it’s murky. It’s such a murky play. Ibsen is a master of subtext, which makes it incredibly rich and challenging to play.”
She’s effusive about Flack, who studied acting at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts before a path of directing that led him to his current role running Belvoir. “He’s been an actor, and he’s got a huge respect for what can be created collaboratively. He’s not somebody who’s interested in arriving to a piece with a strong concept or idea.”
Flack’s production resists the lure of the conceptual overlay, setting the play in its day rather than giving it a contemporary facelift. The latter, Rabe says, would make a nonsense of the text.
“There’s a fad at the moment for reconceiving and updating, Ibsen’s heroines particularly. But Eamon and I knew the issues the play deals with would actually resonate more richly for a contemporary audience if it was set at the time of its writing.”
“So much of the play is about people’s inability to see and talk about what’s right in front of them. Hedda Gabler and A Doll’s House are plays steeped in forbidden behaviour and sex, but this one has domestic violence, venereal disease, incest. Things that at the time just could not be named. That were coded, in terms of the way they were referred to. To try to contemporise that you’d have to completely change everything.”
Rabe recalls seeing a Belvoir production of the play in 1988, starring a young Menzies as Osvald. Louis Nowra’s translation substituted AIDS for the original text’s syphilis, while this new production has the Liberal government firmly in its sights.
Flack’s program note explicitly locates the world of his Ghosts, where men know best and marriage is a holy alliance, as one yearned for by Tony Abbott, and the director’s own adaptation has Manders inveighing against “wild marriages”:
“It is not allowed for a reason. There are limits. We hold a fragile peace. Marriage, sanctified, publicly vowed, is the original bond. All of society follows.”
I tell Rabe my opening night companion was sighing with loud displeasure.
“We certainly felt it from the first preview. We got to that scene and a sudden quiet would descend. It’s shock, really. Ibsen is so prescient in many ways about issues of the individual and the state. Ibsen himself said that there will always be a Pastor Manders, and every Pastor Manders will create his Mrs Alving. And Mrs Alving, being a woman, will run with it. We’re locked in this constant battle of opposing forces.
“I don’t think Ibsen was ever pushing an agenda. If anything, some of his notes indicate that what was consuming his mind were the fundamentalist religious factions that were operating in Norway at the time. But he was also terrified about what the future held in a godless society, where pursuit of pleasure became the new religion.”
That collision – between what Rabe calls “an old world of ideas, a societal structure that makes us feel safe” and “an urge to be free, to pursue self-realisation” – is embodied by Mrs Alving, whose highly proper exterior belies a suppressed indignation.
The tension is something of a specialty. Shooting Cosi with Toni Collette and Ben Mendelsohn in 1995, Rabe remembers Louis Nowra visiting the set and commenting that she was “very good at repression. That is a thread that runs through many of those characters, even the comic characters, and I quite enjoy that.”
Originally from Canada, Rabe trained in the late 1970s at the Vancouver Playhouse, an acting school attached to a working theatre company.
“It was a school that took in one intake only of 12 students for two years, a very intensive training, and in your second year you were apprenticed into the main-stage shows. It’s a great way to learn, and we were exposed to some extraordinary people. I was working with Tennessee Williams in the room. It was extraordinary.”
Upon graduation she followed husband-to-be Roger Hodgman, a theatre director, to Australia. Various stints pulling beers followed before the MTC’s John Sumner handed her a lifeline.
“I’d done a general audition for the Melbourne Theatre Company and about four or five months later he phoned me up out of the blue and said, ‘You must be going crazy.’ ”
Sumner cast her in The Winter’s Tale. “I think some poor actress who had four lines suddenly had two, and I had the other two. But that led to more work. My apprenticeship was very much with the Melbourne Theatre Company during the 1980s.”
Screen work came in dribs and drabs, culminating in two of the most interesting Australian films of the next decade: 1995’s Vacant Possession and 1997’s The Well.
The latter was directed by Samantha Lang (The Monkey’s Mask), adapted by Laura Jones (High Tide) from Elizabeth Jolley’s novel and vividly photographed by Mandy Walker (Hidden Figures). Revived at this year’s Sydney Film Festival, it starred a young Miranda Otto alongside Rabe.
Both films could be test runs for Ghosts: stories of domestic claustrophobia and tyrannical men. They also showcase the last leading roles Rabe has played on film.
In the years since 1997’s Paradise Road, in which she shared the screen with Glenn Close, Frances McDormand and Cate Blanchett, she’s appeared in homegrown shows such as Stingers, The Secret Life of Us and CrashBurn, but not a single Australian film. So what happened?
“I have no idea. We’re a small country. We don’t produce that many feature films. I’m never one to sit around and wait for the phones to ring. I love working in the theatre, and I work a lot in the theatre.”
While fronting Ghosts, Rabe will begin rehearsals for Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary for Malthouse and director Anne-Louise Sarks. From there she’ll go straight into The Children, a co-production between the MTC and STC, written by Lucy Kirkwood (Chimerica). And in November next year she’ll return to Belvoir for Strindberg ’s The Dance of Death, co-starring with Colin Friels and Toby Schmitz under director Judy Davis.
Her schedule is usually booked up a long way out, one reason film producers might be reticent. That and the fact “there aren’t that many roles on film for a 58-year-old woman. And certainly in the past 10 or 15 years many of those roles have gone to overseas actresses.”
Then there’s the tendency to cast younger women to play older than they are, a habit of which Rabe admits she was once the beneficiary. “I played Hester Harper in The Well when I was 35, and she’s a character who’s meant to be the age that I am now.”
Like Claudia Karvan, whose run of film roles in the 1990s has given way to a screen career mostly spent starring in and producing television, Rabe is taking advantage of the global demand for scripted content and a subsequent increase in quality local dramas.
Biggest of all is Foxtel’s Wentworth, which she joined in its second season as Joan “The Freak” Ferguson, a psychotic warden who would become a psychotic inmate, ripping out tongues with gleeful abandon.
The Prisoner remake has been sold to 141 territories around the world, including North America, where it streams on Netflix, and Britain, where it’s on free-to-air. Rabe finished shooting the sixth season earlier this year, and likens the experience to working at an old-school studio, every department within shouting distance.
“It being a prison show, we don’t get out much. We’re always at the workspace where the set has been built. The production offices are there, the art department is there, the writers are there, the producers are there, the editing suite is there. You’re getting changed into your costume and you can hear them cutting up the day’s footage.”
The economics of modern TV drama make risky projects more likely to get up than in film, says Rabe.
“On features there are so many fingers in the pot because the financial stakes are quite high. Whereas companies like Foxtel are allowing individuals to realise things where the financial gamble is not at the forefront.
“A series like Wentworth is hugely successful, whatever one may think of it. But it also touches some pretty gritty themes. There’s brave television-making going on there. And when that starts to get recognised, that changes the playing field for everybody.”
The international profile gifted her by the success of the show has also led to some diehard fans coming to see The Freak tread the boards. “People are travelling far and wide because they’ve watched the show, have become invested in your character.”
What they’ll make of Ghosts is anybody’s guess. There are no cathartic acts of retribution to revel in here, and the play ends with a flourish from lighting designer Nick Schlieper that bolds its title.
“Ibsen was on record as not being particularly happy with that English translation of his title. The Norwegian word actually translates more to ‘things or people who walk again’. Eamon wanted to explore the idea that this was a perpetual day for these characters. That they would do this every 24 hours, as we do on the stage,” Rabe says.
“In a way this whole performance is happening within Mrs Alving’s mind. She’s replaying this perpetual tragic day where she had to face the demons of her past and deal with a poisoned son.”
Photos by Ben King