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Characterising Engstrand in Ghosts

How does a well groomed man in his mid 20’s convincingly step on stage as a haggard old alcoholic on the 15th of September? Well the answer to that is, with great difficulty and months of planning.

The role of Engstrand in Ghosts is a very interesting and intricate character. He has such a warped and creative thought process throughout the show, and is able to appear to be a nobody, whilst at the same time holding all the winning cards, very close to his chest! When we first sat down and read the script - it was no question that I was destined for this role, but why? It’s not like I’m a 40 year old man with a bad leg and a child who doesn’t love me. I’m not an alcoholic, in fact I barely drink. As for manual labour… these hands haven’t done a hard days work in their 26 years.

The thing is, Engstrand is a very clever character, although he doesn’t show it on the surface - I suppose we do have one thing in common then. He uses his appearance, demeanour and personality to warp peoples feeling and opinions, often making others feel slightly sorry for him, until he gets his own way. So yes, I guess I am the right fit for this character.

Step one was to transform my face into that of an ageing man. First things first, I grew out my hair, my one plucked and waxed eyebrows and my designer stubble turned to the hipsters paradise - and it has killed me (and my partner) over the last 3 months. However I now, have definitely aged my face, by some years, and removed a lot of the presentability I once adored.

Next, time for make-up. I have performed in many pantomimes and applied colours around this facial canvas using the equivalent of a plasterer’s towel. But, to use it for special effects - never. I started with the foundation, age, draw in a couple of wrinkles with an eyeliner and make the bags under my eyes less Prada, more Primark. But get this, apparently alcohol makes your skin go red - who knew! Bang a bit of lip liner around the cheeks and nose. Looking good. A dash of grey anyone? White mascara applied to the lashes, brows, beard and tash. What a transformation! Smoking for a lifetime Engstrand? Try this tooth paint, ‘nicotine’ coloured, £1 from eBay, don’t mind if I do.

Tom Stevenson as Engstrand before and After make-up
Before and After Make-Up

Clothing wise - old people wear horrible checked shirts and chinos with a disgusting choice of Reebok Classics. But this isn’t any old bad dress dad. He’s a dirty, filthy man (ooo matron). I soaked most of the costumes in tea, to give it that grotty look - but splashes of left over paint; rub in a bit of compost in choice places; add a curry stain on the chest and toothpaste on the collar and you have yourself a scruffy bloke’s attire. Yes, you have to go over the top - this is theatre darling.

Left the Jacket being make. Right Tom Stevenson Wearing the costume
Creating Engstrand's Costume

Ibsen’s plays are written to replicate real life, back in the 1800’s theatre goer’s would be very middle/upper class citizens, that’s why the play centres around a well off family and their history. Engstrand, the ‘baddy’, is working class, they looked down on him. However most of our audience would be working class people, who ‘disliked’ the uppercases. This is a wonderful bit of understanding when it comes to his delivery on stage. As an actor I can use this information to my advantage.

As the play is very realistic, we opted for a ‘fly on the wall’ type play, opposed to our usual ‘breaking the 4th wall’. This makes Engstrand the ideal character for relatable comedy - and boy does he have his moments. But it is important that the audience visually understand that he is an unfavourable character. To the point where the costumes are actually scented, very unpleasantly, so members of the audience have every sense but touch tickled when Engstrand graces the stage.

The voice was found by chance, many of the phrases that Engstrand says lend themselves beautifully to the cockney accent, as an older man it is important to show the age of the voice. I achieve this by dropping the pitch to a lower range and adding a raspy air to it, years of working in construction have caused his breathy voice, I’m sure.

His walk is slow and designed to grab every last drop of sympathy that he can possibly get from his peers. His shoulders hunched to show a hard life, his lip curled implying his hatred for life. I developed the posture and features of this character by making him a grotesques caricature and bringing him back to a more realistic realm.

Engstrand has very clear and selfish motives throughout the play. Wanting his daughter to leave the luxury life to work for him. Wanting Father Mander’s to put money and time into his business, then completely disregarding Oswald and Mrs Alving when they are no longer use to him - in some scenes actively throwing them aside and ignoring their presence to talk to a character who is more likely to give him what he wants. He is a very direct and blinkered man.

Relationships with other characters is very difficult to delve into, as they can be played in so many different ways, as long as his motives remain the same - the way Engstrand engages with someone entirely depends on that characters behaviour towards him. In our production his daughter is a very sassy independent person who is content with her life and doesn’t aspire to progress much further, allowing him to be very cold with her. He is very much in control of Father Manders and his naive life - even when Manders appears to be in control, he is being played like a fiddle. Oswald and Engstrand need never have their paths crossed as the story doesn’t delve into their history - sometimes it is easier, and better theatre, to not overcomplicate these things.

Without doubt, this has been the most interesting character I’ve developed, it is more than a silly voice, a horrible haircut and a questionable limp - every aspect of this character has been meticulously planned down to each strand of hair poking from the overgrown moustache! I am excited to see the audiences reaction on opening night, I don’t know what to expect, but I’m ready to shock them.

Tom Stevenson

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