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074 – Ghosts, by Henrik Ibsen

074 – Ghosts, by Henrik Ibsen

Hattie Morahan as Helene Alving
Sam Wanamaker Theatre
December 2023
Photo by Marc Brenner

 

074 – Ghosts, by Henrik Ibsen

Although Henrik Ibsen’s dark family drama Ghosts was written more than 140 years ago it still retains the power to shock. Its treatment of sexual disease, incest and euthanasia caused outrage in 1881, with critics describing it as “unutterably offensive”, “an open drain: a loathsome sore unbandaged”, a “putrid play”. Booksellers returned copies unopened, and no European theatre would produce it. The play did not receive its English language premiere until 10 years later, and that evaded the censor only by being presented in a single private performance. The play’s unflinching portrait of repressed truths and social hypocrisy has proven enduring because the conflcit between truth and hypocrisy is a universal source of human drama.

As we record this episode a new adaptation of Ghosts, written and directed by Joe Hill-Gibbons, is playing in the Sam Wanamaker theatre at Shakespeare’s Globe theatre in London until 28th January 2024.

To discuss this wonderfully powerful play, I am joined by Kirsten Shepherd-Barr, who is Professor of English and Theatre Studies at St Catherine’s College, Oxford University. Kirsten’s research interests include the relationship between modernism and theatrical performance, and more specifically for our purposes, the writings of Henrik Ibsen.

During our conversation, Kirsten and I referred several times to Ibsen’s earlier play A Doll’s House, which was the subject of our very first episode:
001 A Doll’s House, by Henrik Ibsen

Kirsten Shepherd-Barr

Kirsten Shepherd-Barr is Professor of English and Theatre Studies at St Catherine’s College, Oxford University. She received her B.A. in English from Yale University, after which she spent a year studying Nordic Literature and Languages at the University of Oslo before earning her D.Phil. from Oxford. She has held teaching posts at the Universities of Birmingham and North Carolina State before joining the English faculty at Oxford in 2007.

Kirsten’s research interests include the relationship between modernism and theatrical performance, and more specifically for our purposes, the writings of Henrik Ibsen. Her first published book wasIbsen and Early Modernist Theatre, 1890-1900  published back in 1997, since when her other publications include The Cambridge Companion to Theatre and Science (2020), Modern Drama: A Very Short Introduction (OUP, 2016),  and Theatre and Evolution from Ibsen to Beckett (Columbia University Press, 2015), as well as numerous contributions to journals and critical collections.

Kirsten has been a guest on Melvyn Bragg’s “In Our Time” on the episode devoted to Ibsen, and has acted as consultant on productions at the National Theatre, the Oxford Playhouse, the Old Vic, and most recently her article “Challenging the Brand” appeared in the programme for the current production of Ghosts at the Globe Theatre.

 

Recommended Play

Kirsten recommended Wit by Margaret Edson.

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076 – Othello, by William Shakespeare

076 – Othello, by William Shakespeare

Shakespeare’s devastating exploration of race, reputation and jealousy, The Tragedy of Othello, The Moor of Venice was a popular success when it was first performed during Shakespeare’s lifetime, but in the centuries since it has provoked a wide range of responses as successive generations have grappled with the racial identity of the eponymous character. As we record this episode a new production of Othello at Shakespeare’s Globe theatre in London views the play’s treatment of race through a contemporary lens, setting the play within the London Metropolitan police force, a topical environment for racial inspection.

I am privileged to welcome as my guest someone especially qualified to help us navigate the tricky waters of Shakespeare’s play, Farah Karim-Cooper, Director of Education at Shakespeare’s Globe, Professor of Shakespeare Studies at Kings College London, and the author of The Great White Bard – Shakespeare, Race and the Future.

Ken Nwosu as Othello and Ralph Davies as Iago
Sam Wanamaker Playhouse
Photo by Johan Persson

075 – The Homecoming, by Harold Pinter

075 – The Homecoming, by Harold Pinter

Harold Pinter’s disturbing exploration of toxic masculinity and sexual maneuvering, The Homecoming premiered in 1965. The play’s portrait of misogyny, and even more disturbing, the apparent female complicity, was shocking at the time it was written. Nearly 60 years on the sexual politics is if anything even more difficult to watch. So what was Pinter’s purpose in presenting such a provocative piece, and how do we process it in the post Me-Too age?

I am joined by Matthew Dunster, the director of a scintillating new production of the play at the Young Vic in London, who can help us answer those questions about Pinter’s challenging classic.

Lisa Diveney as Ruth at the Young Vic – photo by Dean Chalkley.

074 – Ghosts, by Henrik Ibsen

074 – Ghosts, by Henrik Ibsen

Henrik Ibsen’s dark family drama Ghosts provoked outrage when it was published in 1881, its treatment of sexual disease, incest and euthanasia too much for the critics. More than 140 years later its portrait of repressed truths and social hypocrisy remains as powerful as ever.

Professor Kirsten Shepherd-Barr of St Catherine’s College, Oxford, helps us review Ibsen’s unflinching drama.

Hattie Morahan as Helene Alving at the Sam Wanamaker Theatre, London, December 2023. Photo by Marc Brenner.

Kirsten Shepherd-Barr

Kirsten Shepherd-Barr

Kirsten Shepherd-Barr

Kirsten Shepherd-Barr is Professor of English and Theatre Studies at St Catherine’s College, Oxford University. She received her B.A. in English from Yale University, after which she spent a year studying Nordic Literature and Languages at the University of Oslo before earning her D.Phil. from Oxford. She has held teaching posts at the Universities of Birmingham and North Carolina State before joining the English faculty at Oxford in 2007.

Kirsten’s research interests include the relationship between modernism and theatrical performance, and more specifically for our purposes, the writings of Henrik Ibsen. Her first published book wasIbsen and Early Modernist Theatre, 1890-1900  published back in 1997, since when her other publications include The Cambridge Companion to Theatre and Science (2020), Modern Drama: A Very Short Introduction (OUP, 2016),  and Theatre and Evolution from Ibsen to Beckett (Columbia University Press, 2015), as well as numerous contributions to journals and critical collections.

Kirsten has been a guest on Melvyn Bragg’s “In Our Time” on the episode devoted to Ibsen, and has acted as consultant on productions at the National Theatre, the Oxford Playhouse, the Old Vic, and most recently her article “Challenging the Brand” appeared in the programme for the current production of Ghosts at the Globe Theatre.

Podcast Episode(s)
Recommended Play(s)

Kirsten recommended Wit by Margaret Edson.