A Ghost Sonata(Photo: Bengt Wanselius)
A Ghost Sonata
(Photo: Bengt Wanselius)
Ever since it premiered in 1907, August Strindberg's late chamber play A Ghost Sonata has been considered difficult to stage. Some plays get this reputation and deserve it; think of Henrik Ibsen's Peer Gynt, which is long and sprawling and stuffed with abstruse symbolic action. A Ghost Sonata, however, isn't difficult to stage, as Ingmar Bergman just proved with his haunting and haunted Royal Dramatic Theatre of Sweden's version at BAM.

What's difficult about A Ghost Sonata is what is almost always difficult about Strindberg: his unrelenting misanthropy compounded with its utter refusal to fit into anything like a naturalistic style. There's nothing Bergman could do about this aside from remaining true to the experimental text and dreaming up (perhaps literally, in Bergman's case) directorial touches that illuminate and enhance it.

Bergman's gift to Strindberg here was in proving that a director psychologically in tune with a playwright--and Bergman's very personal understanding of depression may make him a true soulmate of Strindberg--can demonstrate how relatively simple it is to mount a moving and appropriately horrifying Ghost Sonata. On the other hand, neither Bergman nor anyone can make spectators who might be resistant to Strindberg's dark views any more likely to sympathize with them.

The play's title goes a good way towards explaining how and what will unfold. Written in three scenes (or in, so to speak, the three movements of a sonata, taking up only about 30 pages in the printed script), the drama includes among its personae a ghost that represents lost innocence. This specter, in the guise of a Milkmaid (what's more wholesome than fresh milk?), appears in the first scene to a destitute Student (Jonas Malmsjo). He's come to a park where an Old Man called Hummel (Jan Malmsjo), in a wheelchair and wearing dark glasses, has declared a temporary territorial right. Chatting the Student up, the Old Man learns that he's talking to the son of a former business acquaintance whom he claims (unconvincingly) not to have bankrupted.

Despite the wheelchair-ridden man's peremptory behavior, the Student agrees to accompany him to a dinner where a Colonel (Per Myrberg), whose wife (Gunnel Lindblom) is a recluse, and his daughter, a Young Lady (Elin Klinga), are entertaining a group of friends. At this grim gathering, leavened only occasionally by macabre drawing-room humor, the Old Man carries on with compulsive destructiveness; for one thing, he unmasks his host as a former valet. He is so obstreperous that the reclusive wife, Mummy, emerges from her room and eventually causes Hummel's welcome demise. It's only then that the Student, who has become smitten with the Young Lady, can be alone with her in a room where she tends hyacinths (or doesn't, since those in her care seem dead, the color bleached from them). While paying court to the increasingly distraught Young Woman, the Student decides that she, too, has been corrupted, and does her in. In other words, the crimes of the old have ineluctably corrupted the actions of the young.

Not a pretty story, but one that seems consistent with the gloomy outlook of Strindberg, the chronically troubled son of an impoverished aristocrat and a former waitress. To offer that take on the world for an audience's acceptance or rejection, Bergman and set designer Goran Wassberg kept the dark stage at BAM relatively empty. At stage right stood a clock by which a giddy Old Lady knitted for much of the first scene. At stage left was the statue of the colonel's wife as a voluptuous younger woman. A green carpet, representing a lawn at one point, lay in the center of the stage. Bergman used the occasional chair or chairs as he saw fit, especially for the party scene, during which the participants faced front in one rank. (A Ghost Sonata was presented in Swedish with an English translation available by way of earphones rented at five bucks a pop. Oddly, perhaps, the actors reading the translation kept their emotions to themselves.)

Bergman has never flinched from facing up to life's starkest moments, and saw to it that his actors followed his example. Jan Malmsjo, as the Old Man, jolted into controlled furies at a moment's notice and then became just as suddenly becalmed. When he rose to walk with the aid of two canes, it was with an ominous shuffle. (That he resembled Mr. Magoo is something Bergman certainly didn't intend.) Jonas Malmsjo's Student sank from the level of hopeful, if impecunious, to disillusioned and thoroughly hopeless; the light draining from his eyes was the most notable feature of a skilled performance. As the Young Lady, Elin Klinga was statuesque in her ice-blue frock, but her flowing movements were marred by a slight tic; she was simultaneously alluring and menacing. As Mummy, Gunnel Lindblom looked ghostly herself in a many-layered gown that appeared to be tainted with old blood; she insinuated herself around the stage, making frightening noises. (Anna Bergman designed the costumes, to impressive, emblematic effect.) Sweeping about the proceedings, Lindblom was the incarnation of Strindberg's worst fears about humankind's fate.

A Ghost Sonata(Photo: Bengt Wanselius)
A Ghost Sonata
(Photo: Bengt Wanselius)
A movie director who has foresworn films, Bergman still has an eye for the telling close-up. At one point in A Ghost Sonata, for instance, the Old Man held up a gloved hand with blood on it. When the angry Student stripped the Young Lady of her dress and her dignity, her undergarments were likewise stained with fresh blood. When the Young Lady died, the Milkmaid rolled from the back of the stage to lie directly behind her; then this inconsolable ghost rose to do a dance of death (fittingly for Strindberg) that ended in a moment of frozen anguish. This wasn't the only somber tableau of the production; earlier, backstage curtains parted to reveal a crowd frightened into stiffness by the curious doings with which they'd been confronted. There's apparently no end to Bergman's meaningful stage tricks.

Possibly the most unforgettable image in A Ghost Sonata occurred when a servant entered with a chamber pot and emptied its contents into an onstage pit. Just across from the pit was a well from which the Milkmaid drew water for the Student to drink. Bergman's implication was that the water supply and the sewer system were connected and that, ultimately, everyone and everything is infected. No one remains pure. It's a harsh view that audiences had the option to take or leave. Strindberg seems to have had no such option.