Steven Mitchell Wright on the legacy, secrecy, sex, and societal hypocrisy of Ghosts

by | May 13, 2024

This June, Theatre Works invites audiences to dive into the hauntingly beautiful world of Henrik Ibsens Ghosts. Masterfully adapted by Jodi Gallagher and brought to life through the visionary direction of Steven Mitchell Wright, it promises to be a true highlight on the 2024 Victorian arts calendar.

Like many of Ibsen’s plays, Ghosts is a scathing commentary on 19th-century morality.

“Ghosts delves into the poisonous legacy of the past – how the sins of one generation can haunt the next,” says Wright about Ibsen’s 1881 controversial play. “Ibsen explores themes like moral and religious hypocrisy, the constraints of societal expectations, reputation, the patriarchy, and the taboo subjects of incest and inherited illness.

Even over a century later, these themes ring true because we’re still grappling with the weight of inherited traumas, the façade of propriety, and the crushing expectations of conforming to social norms. In today’s world, where transparency and authenticity are highly valued, Ibsen’s exploration of secrecy, reputation and hypocrisy are as relevant than ever.”

This production will be Wright’s second Ibsen season with his first, A Doll’s House, headlining Brisbane Festival with La Boite Theatre Company and winning multiple Matilda Awards.

“I discovered that while Ibsen and I are quite diametrically opposed in regard to our theatrical priorities, there was a rich cross-over in regard to subtext and the unspoken,” says Wright. “I came to Ghosts after that to discover those things remain true across this work as well. I was immediately struck by how layered and complex it was.

Ibsen is like an onion; you peel back one layer, and there’s always more to uncover. What drew me to this project was the rich thematic landscape: legacy, secrecy, the sex, and societal hypocrisy all rolled into one compelling story.”

For Wright, the chance to reimagine this classic through an Australian lens, bringing those themes into our red dirt backyard, was just irresistible. “It’s like finding a vintage car and turning it into a supercharged modern machine, I guess? (I’m not very automotive). You want to get behind the wheel and see how fast it can go.”

Ghosts will be Gallagher’s first adaptation of a canonical play, so for those who adore Ibsen’s original, Wright and the team have kept the spirit of the play intact while giving it a vibrant new twist. “It’s like covering a classic song – you’ll recognise the melody, but the beats are edgier, and the rhythm is unmistakably contemporary,” he says. “We’ve transposed the story from a wintery Scandinavian sitting room to an Australia Summer, infusing it with a gritty, visceral immediacy. It’s a blend of the classic and the contemporary, where Victorian-era characters speak to modern sensibilities against a landscape that’s both stark and stunning.”  Wright credits the idea of making the play more relevant to a local audience as a true collaboration with a lot of back and forth.

“I initially suggested the transposition to Australia though because I didn’t like the almost capital R Romantic distance that the fjords out the window gave the work. I wanted it to feel closer, more immediate, more relatable. Jodi ran with it though and made it sing.”

When the work was first published, Ibsen’s contemporaries found the play shocking and indecent but over time, the play has come to be considered a great play that historically holds a position of immense importance.

Wright says he has always admired Ibsen’s knack for stirring the pot. “He wasn’t afraid to call out the moral hypocrisy of his time and shine a light on the shadows lurking beneath society’s veneer. Ibsen had a sharp eye for human behaviour, and he tackled taboo subjects head-on, which was downright revolutionary in the 19th century.”

Wright acknowledges that it’s hard to know how great these plays are though without being able to read them in the original language. “Some of them don’t stand up to that modernist dramaturgical scrutiny that we now hold for a “well-made play” but that’s okay – I like a play that’s a bit imperfect. It gives us more to wrestle with. I think a play that is perfect on the page doesn’t need to get to the stage.”

With this adaptation of Ghosts revealing conversations about environmental stewardship, indigenous histories, and colonial legacies, Wright would love the play to engender discussion about the legacies we inherit and the ones we leave behind. How do we break free from the ghosts of the past? How do we navigate societal expectations while staying true to ourselves?

“I’d also like people to talk about the facades we all put up and how they can sometimes crumble under pressure,” he says. “And let’s not shy away from the hard stuff: mental illness, sexual morality, and societal hypocrisy. I don’t believe it’s the Theatre’s job to find or provide answers, but to pose questions and create the conversations.”

Wright holds the position of Artistic Associate at Theatre Works and is the Artistic Director of The Danger Ensemble. His directorial efforts at Theatre Works include Medea: Out of the Mouths of Babes and Michael Gow’s Away. Wright has worked as a director, designer, and choreographer as well as a teacher  in the Suzuki Method of Actor Training and Butoh Dance Theatre.

As a creative, he is drawn to themes that dig deep into the human condition – identity, legacy, power dynamics, and how societal norms shape our choices. He loves telling stories that blur the lines between right and wrong, light and dark, and force us to confront uncomfortable truths. “I’m all about finding beauty in the gritty and the messy. If a story can make you laugh, cry, and question your beliefs all at once, then I’m all in.”

Flawlessly shrouded in deception and duty, Ghosts is a journey through the shadows of hidden sins, and a quest for truth in pursuit of joy.

Says Wright, “If you’re looking for theatre that grips you by the collar and won’t let go, Ghosts by Jodi Gallagher after Ibsen is the show for you.

It’s a timeless tale told through a fresh, distinctly Australian lens, packed with gut-punching drama, humour, and a little bit of madness. You’ll be drawn into a world where secrets whisper, legacies loom, and the ghosts of the past come to life.

Grab your ticket, and let’s go on this journey together. You won’t regret it.”

May 30 – June 15

www.theatreworks.org.au/2024/ghosts

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