“Ghosts” is a very subdued play that does not call for a lot of lighting changes or music cues. Mostly, the play involves characters having conversations (or arguments) rather than using fancy drama techniques to convey the story. This is to be expected of Ibsen – he was one of the first playwrights to adopt a “naturalistic” style. No longer did characters speak in verse and heightened language – instead, they spoke in natural rhythms, the way we speak every day. The play is presented linearly, from start to finish, the story contained within one setting, the characters no longer melodramatic stereotypes, but real people that the audience can relate to.
As we approached Ghosts, we knew that some form of sound must be used. A quiet theatre can fail to build excitement and tension in the same way – there is no build up to “set the scene” and “get the audience in the mood”. As the audience enter, we always play music that represents the play we are about to perform. For Redrum, it was classical music, to reflect the 1920s setting. For Teechers, it was chart music. For Ghosts, Tom Stevenson (our preproduction technician) scoured playlists to find songs that included the word “Ghosts” – everything from Michael Jackson to Ella Henderson.
Yet, still, something felt missing. The whole point of this production – our main selling point – was that the play had been updated, pulled from the 1890s and dropped in 2019. We needed something to make it feel more current.
And so, we interspersed these singles with snippets from radio news broadcasts, taken from the last week. Reports on Brexit, sport, entertainment news. Pieces of information that would tell the audience, this didn’t happen 100 years ago, it’s happening right now, today.
Usually, our productions will also begin with a pre-show announcement. As soon as the house lights have gone down, there will be a short announcement over the PA system that tells people to switch off their mobile phones, buy drinks in the interval, follow us on social media, etc. This time, we didn’t want to do that. Ibsen’s plays, and especially “Ghosts”, are slow-burners. This is necessary for the story – we need to learn about the characters and build some background before we can get to the meat of the plot in Act Two. As such, this means Act One can feel a bit slow. We didn’t want to slow that down anymore. So, as you sit to watch Ghosts, you’re thrown straight into the opening scene, as Rachel plays music on Alexa, flicks on her Dyson, and dances round the room to some pop music.
And what pop music does Rachel listen to? Portugal The Man’s “Feel It Still” from 2017. The opening lyrics to the song are “Can’t keep my hands to myself” which is such a perfect line to sum up the plot of Ghosts, it’s almost as though we chose the song primarily for that purpose. (We didn’t. We just liked the song.)
Throughout the rest of the play, the sound cues are few and far between, as the play doesn’t require any further music to be played. This doesn’t mean the speakers are completely silent, however. Instead, ominous tones draw the audience’s attention whenever important information is revealed. The problem with “naturalistic” theatre is that often there’s a lot of unnecessary speaking from characters, irrelevant information such as “How many sugars in your tea?” or “How was your journey from town?” It can sometimes be difficult for an audience to know when to pay close attention to the action, and when they can take their eye off the ball slightly. The use of these tones tells the audience to start listening in order to pick up on the plot.
The play ends with the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun”, which was originally suggested as a joke by one of our members, since Oswald is constantly complaining about it always raining, and towards the end of the play the sun finally comes out. We initially thought the optimistic tune of “Here Comes the Sun” would be jarring after the harrowing final scene, but instead, the juxtaposition of the two works really nicely in a way we never thought it would have. As soon as we tried the two together – the final scene with that music – we knew we were onto a winner. If anything, rather than breaking the tension, it heightens it. There’s something inherently sad about listening to such a happy song in the aftermath of that awful, haunting ending.
“Ghosts” plays for the final time on Friday 20th September at the John Godber Centre in Hucknall – buy your tickets at seaty.co.uk/ghosts
Tom Morley, 2019