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Bijan Sheibani & Rebecca Lenkiewicz on Tackling Ghosts

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Henrik Ibsen is having a moment, it seems. Following hot on the heels of the Donmar’s star-studded production of A Dolls House, a new and much anticipated production of Ghosts (or Those Who Return) opens this week at the Arcola. A co-production with ATC, who recently moved offices from the West End to Hackney, the play is directed by ATC’s award-winning artistic director Bijan Sheibani and translated by Rebecca Lenkiewicz, who adapted the Arcola’s critically acclaimed version of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People last year. Whatsonstage.com joined the duo before rehearsals to hear more about the show.

How did this ATC-Arcola co-production come about?
Bijan Sheibani: We’ve been talking about working with the Arcola for quite a long-time, particularly since ATC moved to Shoreditch last September. I saw Rebecca’s Enemy of the People here a year ago and was blown away by it. And I’d wanted to do Ghosts for a while. So it all clicked together. Ghosts. Here. With Rebecca. And ATC.
Rebecca Lenkiewicz: Me and Bijan had worked together on an opera course, so when Bijan asked me to be involved, there was no hesitation. I’ve had a long relationship with the Arcola. The first play I wrote was the first play put on here Soho: A Tale of Table Dancers, so we were born at the same time and I’ve really seen this place transform.

As your first Ibsen, Bijan, what attracted you to Ghosts?
BS: You just get a feeling about a play when you read it: it feels right. But since then, I’ve started noticing all these connections to our previous two plays. The common theme is families. How much the bonds of families can withstand and how we really need our family at particular moments. That’s what Gone Too Far! and The Brothers Size were looking at too. So, while on first glance, there doesn’t seem to be much connection between two new plays by black writers and a dead white playwright from 100 years ago, they are really interested in the same ideas.

You've got some great actors on board in Suzanne Burden and Harry Lloyd. Was it a difficult production to cast?
BS: It wasn’t a difficult search. I’d seen Suzanne in a play at Soho, an American monologue, and she was outstanding. I thought, ‘Who’s that Hollywood star down there?’ and it was Suzanne. She had also been in the BBC's Bleak House, of course, and she felt absolutely right for Mrs Alving. Harry, I’d seen in a couple of things. Jim Bywater was in An Enemy of the People here last year. And Paul Hickey, I’d seen at the Royal Court.

Having worked on An Enemy of the People, Rebecca, did you feel you already knew Ibsen well?
RL: I felt I had tried to get under his skin before, so not an old friend, perhaps, but at least we had met. With adaption, you just dive in really, you don’t think too much. I’d actually acted in A Dolls House years ago though, so it felt quite natural. I played Nora and one night during the Tarantella dance which is meant to be so empowering, I threw myself into it so much that I almost fell off stage. I was always ashamed of that, but then Jack Shepherd told me that he had played Hamlet and got so into that he nearly feel off stage, too!

Like A Doll’s House, Ghosts was heavily censored at the time. What shocked Victorian audiences most?
RL: Partly, it was Ibsen’s condemnation of the church and open discussion of venereal disease. None of these are parlour subjects. But also the discussion of a woman’s duty, just like in A Doll's House, but here, taking it even further. Ibsen was quite a feminist, suggesting a woman should not be tied to a man who is a philanderer. But in Victorian society, that’s how it was. You were tied.
BS: You have quite controversial propositions made by Mrs Alving. At one point, she asks why a half-brother and sister, if they love each other, can't get married. Even now, that’s quite a shocking proposition. And it’s just the fact that he was asking those questions that frightened people; that something like that could even be imagined.

So Ghosts is actually rather a modern piece in some ways?
I don’t know whether it’s modern, exactly. The question is always: is a play worth doing? And it is. Anything that one can relate to and that you’re moved by is worth doing. There’s such a lot of pain and beauty in this play, and Ibsen also has an incredible empathy with people. He was an exile in his own country for more than 20 years due to various scandals. So you can see where this sense of pain and alienation in his plays come from.

Translator Zinnie Harris was criticised in some quarters for updating A Doll’s House for the Donmar. Yet reviewers praised your Enemy of the People for its modern touch.
I don’t consciously bring modern idiom to it but I do keep away from anything that sounds dated or melodramatic. I speak it out loud as I’m doing it to see if everything could be said in our day, now. And if it couldn’t be, or it sounds a bit flowery , I cut it. I feel a responsibility to be faithful to Ibsen.

Faithful to what exactly?
To the spirit of it. At the time people watched the play and were gripped and shocked, so if I can do a version where people are gripped and shocked, then I’m being faithful to Ibsen, despite 140 years of change. The psychology is different, of course. This was pre-Freud and we have a different psyche now. But it’s just about trying to make it feel real so that even a 16-year-old can come in and go: ‘I really enjoyed that.’ It’s so easy to think: ‘That’s the past and these are the classics.’ My only aim is to make it live.

There is a lot of temperature-taking of London theatre at the moment. Are you excited by what’s out there? Gripped and shocked even?
Occasionally, though not as often as I’d like. I think one’s relationship to watching plays changes according to the work you’re doing. Without wanting to, when you watch a play, you’ve got an inner critic about the layout, the words. But if it’s stunning, I don’t think that happens. You just watch and your jaw drops.
Absolutely. There is a lot of interesting work going on In London, but I haven’t seen anything for the last month or so. You’re so immersed in the world you’re working on that to try and step into another imaginary world in the evening, I can find a little too much. I was working on a play and went to see Pina Bausch for the first time and it was like witnessing another planet. The bar was suddenly placed twice as high for what was possible, which was a good thing to happen in the middle of the rehearsal process. At the same time, I began thinking that maybe I should have dancers swooping on in the middle of my production. So it can throw you off course as well!


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