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Ibsen’s Ghosts: ‘We are still stuffing our secrets back into the ground’

Actor Cathy Belton and dramatist Mark O’Rowe’s fascination with the Norwegian’s 1881 play bears fruit in a new version coming to the Abbey

From the outside, the rehearsal hall at the back of Leinster Cricket Club looks deserted; a summer house closed up for the winter. Inside, behind closed curtains, an intense drama is unfolding on a loosely furnished mock-up of a family drawing room. It is the end of the long day, and the company gathered for a production of Ibsen’s play Ghosts, in a new version by Mark O’Rowe, are making their way through the climactic final scene. Cathy Belton, playing the lead role of Mrs Alving, is pacing back and forth across the floor in half a costume; her own casual black jumper matched with a rich red bustle of a skirt that forces her to move slowly and with intention. As Mrs Alving attempts to account for her life to her ailing son, Oswald (played by Calam Lynch ), Belton slips in and out of character. “Is this too dangerous?” she asks herself, trying to figure out Mrs Alving’s motivation. Mid-speech she interrupts herself, then chides herself for hesitation. “No. I have to brazen it out, don’t I?”

You would be able to hear a pin drop in the silences that punctuate the pauses in her revelations. Even as the actors try to figure it out, even halfway through the second week of rehearsal, the scene is completely absorbing.

Five minutes after O’Rowe, who is also directing the play, calls a halt to the long day’s rehearsal, Belton and O’Rowe join me in an upstairs meeting room to chat about Ghosts, a production for Landmark Productions and the Abbey Theatre, which is marked by a shared personal history. The pair worked together previously on O’Rowe’s 2018 play, The Approach, which he wrote specifically for Belton, and fellow actors Derbhle Crotty and Aisling O’Sullivan. “Look, that’s not the kind of way you would write all the time,” he admits.

“Mostly – like with the thing I am writing now – you are writing for a long time and the characters are sort of these blank faces defined by their actions. It’s only later you are trying to see if you can see anyone you know in there.


“So it was a bit mad [what I did for The Approach]. I came to [each of the actors] and said ‘I’m writing a play for you.’ And they are such formidable women that I knew that once I said it I couldn’t back out, and that was part of the reason I said it: so I had to produce the goods.”

The critically lauded production, which O’Rowe also directed, was the first time they worked together and Belton recalls the period with great fondness: “I would happily work with Mark for the rest of my life!” she jokes. Their friendship continued through Covid, where they would meet up and talk about the films they were watching, the plays they loved. O’Rowe asked Belton if there were any roles she wanted to play that she hadn’t yet. “Like what’s on your wish list,” he qualifies. “I wasn’t offering to write something, it was just a more general question.”

Belton told O’Rowe about her fondness for Ibsen’s 1881 play, which she had read in college and never seen performed. “I remember thinking when I read it [at the Samuel Beckett Centre, where she trained during the 1980s]: Oh you have the Heddas and the Noras but Helen Alving is the one for me. When I reach that age, I’d love to play her.” Belton had been thinking of the play recently too: “It had been sort of nagging me over the last few years, reading about the Tuam babies and the mother-and-baby homes, I was thinking about how we are still stuffing our secrets back into the ground, how that is what Ghosts is about. Helen Alving is trying to deal with the past to make peace with the present; trying to reach for a personal truth. I often thought: this play needs to be on now.”

O’Rowe responds: “Now, Cathy could have named 100 other plays and I would have said ‘oh, right, interesting.’” However, O’Rowe also had a deep affinity for Ibsen’s drama about a widow confronted with the secrets of the past when her adult son returns to their home asking difficult questions. “I saw a production of it in London about a decade ago,” he explains. “I had actually never read it, so I was watching it live for the first time, without any knowledge of what it was about really. And I was just on the edge of my seat [as it] got more and more surprising and intense. I couldn’t believe the places it went to before the end. I was coming out of my seat, my breath held: there was that level of story tension.” When Belton revealed her desire to play the starring role, O’Rowe says, “I thought: there’s a play I feel I could adapt.”

O’Rowe had previously adapted Ibsen’s final play, Hedda Gabler, for The Abbey Theatre in 2015, and the Norwegian writer had been a lodestar for the young O’Rowe developing his voice in the early 1990s, where he “read everything, read everyone”, as he honed his own unique stage voice. What struck him about the 19th-century realist master was “how weird his plays are when you read them. In most translations, the plays seem quite staid and blocky, lifeless and chunky. A lot of them stay very close to what he wrote, and they are overwritten, the exposition feels too much. That is the negative side. But that’s just dialogue, the words the actors say. When you strip it back, the complexity of the plays is just enormous.”

He turns his attention to Ghosts. “The thing about adapting something,” he says, “is you get to sit right next to [the writer] really, and you are taking apart what they have done in a way that’s not boring: you are actively engaging with them. But even with my best efforts to make the dialogue more fluid and alive, more recognisable in terms of how we might speak here, I was worried that it was too stagey, that the [plot] would just be too big a leap for an audience to take. But then rehearsals start and the actors come in and you realise there is so much dramatic depth and space, and you can actually find your way there easily. This will run for about 90 mins on stage, and the construction is incredible. It is set over 18 hours, but it feels like real time, condensed into an hour and a half. It’s quite extraordinary.”

The start of the rehearsal period was doubly rewarding for O’Rowe, he says, because he has realised over the last three decades how much he thrives on the live exchange with actors preparing his work for the stage. “I don’t want this to sound like I’m taking it too lightly,” he says as the conversation comes to an end, “because I know it sounds like something cool someone would say, but maybe one of the [motivations for adapting Ghosts] was just so I could get into a rehearsal room with all these actors! When I started directing, it was to protect my work from someone screwing it up, but I love directing. Now when I write something, I feel like ‘hold on I want to be in on the fun too’.”

Ghosts runs at the Abbey Theatre from April 15th to May 13th