The Ghost Writer
by Ross Meuller
Melbourne Theatre Company
7th April 2007
Some people have walked away thoroughly entertained by this new Australian work, but unfortunately for me it represented most of what I loathe about much of mainstream contemporary theatre.
I was not gripped by this whodunit for a single moment and the ‘thrill’ in this Australian thriller just wasn’t there. The plot (esteemed by many) was pedestrian and predictable, where the viewer constantly guesses upcoming connections between characters and threads in the storyline.
One of the eternally annoying aspects about much of mainstream theatre today is that in a realistic play (of which the acting in The Ghost Writer is definitely intended to be), the dialogue isn’t authentic, everyday speech, common to the social grounding of the characters represented on stage.
You’re a journalist?”
“Yes, I’m a journalist”
Yes. We get the picture. Not only is the character of Claudia a journalist, but the exchange between characters here was one of many examples of similar dialogue that was unnatural and therefore, dare I say it, not believable. Real people simply do not speak in repetition like the example, above.
There were also numerous instances of dialogue exchanges occurring too quickly. Call me picky, but when characters exchange fire in a tense conversation, one first has to have time to consume the other character’s line, in order to react with a verbal response to it. When characters exchange lines too quickly, it looks fake and represents two actors spurting out learnt lines, instead of two believable characters in a conversation.
While Brihanna’s exchanges were quite gritty and genuine for her character, those between West and Claudia were often not. Add to this a level of sophistication in Robert and Claudia’s dialogue that occasionally delved into using words beyond their character’s means in an everyday conversation. Granted, their characters were presumably well educated, but even highly educated people don’t always speak like they have a thesaurus hidden in the back of their mouth. Even though it may have just been the odd word here or there, it was nevertheless recognisably out of place. And these sorts of things are unfortunately all too common in many mainstream commercial plays today. Heightened language has its place in the theatre, but in moderation (both in terms of quality and quantity of use). The best theatre is so real it transports you from your seat in the audience onto the stage itself. You sit there with part of yourself invisibly belonging on stage alongside the characters as they perform their scenes. The Ghost Writer was no such play.
In terms of acting, you can only do so much with the lines you are given. Did anyone expect Nicole Kidman to get nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for her role in the film Bewitched last year? Nope. Didn’t think so. The writing in plays also affects the level of acting produced on stage. While Raj Sidhu appeared to underact his role of West, the reverse occurred with his counterpart, as Belinda McClory seemed to overact her role of Claudia. Sidhu spoke many lines with the wrong tone or intonation, leaving me briefly thinking I was watching a Year 9 school play. McClory on the other hand forced her lines so often, as my Drama students would say; at times she looked a bit ‘try-hard’ on stage. Al Pacino suggests actors never give their all, but rather realise their maximum acting intensity with a role, take stock, then bring it back a notch or two. As I say to my Drama students, if you turn your iPod up to full volume while playing Metallica, you’ll blow your eardrums … and so it is with acting on the stage.
Ironically, after all this criticism of the acting, The Ghost Writer was so text-heavy, it was almost ‘anti-acting’. As I watched actors speak long monologues, accompanied by brief glimpses of accompanied gestures and facial expressions, I thought I had purchased a ticket to Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, or for an Australian equivalent, Lawler’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll. The Ghost Writer may have been much better as a novel, not a play.
Julian Meyrick’s direction then allowed for several instances of rising tension between characters occurring unnaturally in the play. Going from slight disagreement to all out screaming match in five seconds flat isn’t authentic on the stage. If the tension doesn’t genuinely build to its crisis, then the audience refuses to suspend their disbelief and the scene turns into a Brechtian drama, where we are reminded the actors are playing stage roles. This problem is not unique to The Ghost Writer. It is rampant in contemporary mainstream theatre, and has been for a while now.
For some years it has been uncommon to see stagehands on professional play sets. With clever use of actors manoeuvring props themselves on stage, the almost-elimination of the humble stagehand has assisted in audience believability and continuity in a constant stream of fully-lit stage action from start to finish. The Ghost Writer employed the use of one stage hand, used more than half a dozen times during the performance. Only on a couple of occasions was this stagehand dressed as a possible ‘character’ (the subtle addition of an apron when moving props to and from the ‘café’ scenes), but at all other times, the traditional blacks (with a bit of charcoal) were worn. Paul Jackson’s lighting design largely accepted the stagehand moving props in near-full intensity, clearly seen by the audience. I can accept John Wood craftily collecting a prop on his exit from the stage, but if the use of a stagehand was deemed a necessity, then at least go back to the traditional method of dimming the lights while she walks across the entire set, grabs half a dozen items and disappears. She was not invisible and the whole time she was there, I was reminded of my place in a theatre on a Saturday afternoon, watching a group of MTC actors get paid MEAA rates performing a play.
Similarly, Stephen Curtis’ scene design affected my engagement in The Ghost Writer. No doubt mostly for reasons concerning budgetary constraints, modern theatre audiences are used to seeing professional play sets ‘doubling up’ in different parts of the production. Curtis’ minimalist set of a bed and a bench served for Claudia’s apartment, West’s house, Brihanna’s hotel room, Robert’s publishing office, a café and ultimately a morgue in the final scene. Too many sets in one! Not all of them worked. The café, in particular, wasn’t happening. No matter how much the audience was asked to stretch their imagination, it never looked like a café.
Meyrick’s direction of allowing the The Child (ghost of Brihanna’s dead child) to walk among the characters unseen in the second act was fine, but the merging of two scenes using different parts of the set with ‘finished’ actors still on another part of the stage didn’t always work effectively. The physical space of the stage area was perhaps too small, but these issues should have been ironed out with a combination of slick direction and lighting design.
To quote Edward Albee (who sees almost all of Broadway’s new plays each year because he is a voting member for The Tony Awards):
‘Of the eighty or so plays that get produced on Broadway each year, only two or three of them are any good. The rest are just commercial junk.’
While The Ghost Writer was a new Australian work, the MTC in particular, picks up Broadway plays from New York’s previous season(s) each year and Broadway-bred or not, we are falling into the same trap of collecting “commercial junk” here in Australia.
In a wonderful documentary The Method Man, chronicling Lee Strasberg’s ef
forts with New York’s Group Theatre and later, The Actor’s Studio, Strasberg constantly (and abruptly) stops his would-be stars of stage and screen mid-scene, gruffly pointing out to them exactly when and where their acting stopped being believable. I now do this with my senior Drama students in class. They both love it and hate it at the same time. But one thing is now guaranteed – their acting improves every time this technique is employed.
Sadly, even with John Wood in the cast, much of the acting in The Ghost Writer simply wasn’t convincing and as a result, the MTC just committed theatre’s No.1 Cardinal Sin …