For the 11th time in 15 years, a Royal
Dramatic Theatre of Sweden production directed by Ingmar Bergman
is coming to BAM.
That’s the good news.
The bad news? It looks like Bergman’s staging of Ibsen’s "Ghosts," June 10-14 at the BAM Harvey Theater, will also be his last.
At least that’s what actress Pernilla August, who plays the pivotal role of Mrs. Alving in "Ghosts," believes.
"I think this is the last one for him," August said matter-of-factly from her home in Sweden. "I really think he’s finally stopping this time ... at least that’s what he’s told us."
If that last comment seemed to leave the door open for a change of heart by the great director, August didn’t think so.
"He’s told us that several other times over the years, but he just kept right on working," she explained. "But this time I believe him, and you can really feel it in the show. I can feel a ’goodbye’ in it, but it’s very hard to explain why."
When pressed, the actress said, "You can really feel things from other plays that Bergman has done in it."
Bergman issued this statement, "At 85 years of age and after 60 working years, 126 dramatic events, 50 films for both TV and screen, 49 radio plays and a number of books and scripts, I feel that I can bring my career to an end. And I wish to complete it while I can walk out of the theater on my own. I shouldn’t have to be carried out."
The famed Bergman overhauled the entire play, to August’s delight.
"It’s great," she said with a laugh. "He’s added things by Strindberg which fit very well, and there’s even a Bergman scene in it - wait until you see it; it’s one of the most beautiful scenes in the whole play. He has been very free with how he adapted and translated it. But you can do that kind of thing when you’re 85 years old."
Ibsen’s "Ghosts" is a difficult play to mount, as a mediocre off-Broadway production last fall starring Amy Irving demonstrated. Written in 1881, "Ghosts" was considered an affront to good taste right from its premiere because it tackled such subjects as incest, syphilis, euthanasia and church corruption.
"[Ghosts] is still very relevant today, because all of the problems they deal with, we still deal with today ourselves - it’s truly how we live today," said August. "Ibsen himself called it a ’life lie,’ when you actually live a lie during your whole life. Also, the issue of syphilis in the play is so much like AIDS, so it’s not hard for me to understand its continuing relevance to all of us."
August also discussed the innately depressing subject matter that permeates "Ghosts," perhaps more so than any of Ibsen’s other dramas.
"We do what we can with the material, and we try to get the best of it," she says. "Of course, it’s a very sad story, there’s no denying that. But even sadness can be good for the audience to see sometimes."
That sadness is personified by Mrs. Helen Alving, who is haunted by the ghosts of her past - specifically her son Osvald, who has returned home to die of the syphilis he inherited from his father, Mrs. Alving’s late husband. Osvald’s return opens fresh wounds for the widow, who must reconcile a past that she would rather keep hidden.
For August, playing Mrs. Alving is a chore in itself, not unlike the major role she played in Bergman’s production of Schiller’s "Maria Stuart," which wowed BAM audiences last spring.
"Playing Mrs. Alving is really hard to do; it’s really draining to perform, but it’s also wonderfully cathartic to do it onstage night after night," she said.
"Ibsen’s ’Ghosts’ is more like a chamber play," said August. "’Maria Stuart’ was this big ship, and ’Ghosts’ is a small boat. It’s wonderful to work in an Ibsen play with Bergman directing. I did [Ibsen’s] ’Doll’s House’ for Bergman about 15 years ago, and these two plays are my most important works with Bergman. There’s a connection between them, as well - Bergman told me that she’s very much like Nora’s sister, but she doesn’t slam the door at the end."
The Swedish troupe recently performed the play to raves in London, after doing it in Stockholm for many months before that.
The actress loves returning to BAM - this is her fourth appearance in a Bergman play here - she admits that that affection comes with a caveat.
"I’m very happy to be presenting ’Ghosts’ to people in Brooklyn, and I’m looking forward to doing it for the last time," August said. "But I wish I could come to New York and be free someday. I always go there just to perform."
Royal Dramatic Theatre of Sweden’s production of "Ghosts" runs June 10-14, at 7:30 pm, at the BAM Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton St. at Rockwell Street in Fort Greene. The play is in Swedish with simultaneous headphone translation. Limited tickets remain at $55 and $30. For tickets, call (718) 636-4100 or visit the Web site at bam.org.