REVIEW: Ibsen:Ghosts

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Last night, the German duo Markus&Markus left an indelible Margot-shaped impression in local discourse on the right-to-die with their riveting documentary theatre Ibsen: Ghosts. This certainly isn’t the first time Singaporean audiences have been confronted with moral questions about dying (think: the use of medical marijuana in Haresh Sharma’s Good People (2007)), and this moving piece with its dearly departed protagonist Margot suggests that one will not return to easy answers anytime soon; It is difficult to discuss doctor-assisted dying as a theoretical option after having literally witnessed non-actor Margot’s participation.

Given the touchy material presented, it was wondrous to watch Markus&Markus push the documentary format and deliver it with a good mix of heart, head and humour, not for a moment compromising the integrity and intensity of the life-with-impending-death situation. In fact it was a running joke of Margot’s, who helped craft the piece, that she would pull out of the assisted dying arrangement and ruin the team’s project if she ever got too annoyed. And thus, it was with the same generous spirit that Ibsen:Ghosts respectfully embraced and playfully conveyed the joy, sadness and determination about Margot’s decision to die.

In Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts, the despairing and diseased Oswald asks for his mother to help him die with an overdose of morphine. The play ends with Oswald’s final request (“Mother, give me the sun.”) and Mrs. Alving’s screaming and scrambling for pills as he lapses into a fit. This final scene is enacted in a subdued reading by Margot’s bed, on the final morning before her procedure, with Margot reading Oswald’s parts and Markus&Markus sharing Mrs Alving’s lines. The tributary Ibsen: Ghosts is not all doom and gloom, however. The multi-format presentation comprising a set with furniture and props set against audio-visual projection, is an adept recount of Markus&Markus search for their Oswald and, more importantly, a reanimation of Margot whom they befriended and collaborated with right up till the end of her life.

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The piece begins on a comic note with absurd lip-syncing to famous deaths in operas and the geographical mapping of Margot’s early life with 3D game graphics, complete with epic RPG orchestral music. Then, snippets of email correspondences are read out against footage of the first meeting with Margot, reflecting the challenges faced by the Markus&Markus team in getting the endorsement of authorities and finding a willing party. Our first proper introduction to Margot herself is her reading her will stating her intention to die in April 2014. The thirty days before Margot’s planned dying are then strung along chronologically by selectively juxtaposed footage, stage action, as well as live and recorded readings of diary entries, letters and email correspondences by Markus&Markus and Margot herself.

Intimate moments build up and play out beautifully thanks to the genius of the team. In one instance, Margot’s issues with being dependent are subtly foregrounded when the two men prepare dog treats on a park bench and one Markus, later on, feeds the other, who is on all fours playing a dog. This motif is subsequently clarified when Margot states, in an audio clip, that she was happiest achieving things rather than being totally dependent as she had become – she then slightly abashedly shares that she has since turned to dogs for a different sort of connection. The superimposition of these personal thoughts onto footages of Margot in seemingly idyllic circumstances – making Sangria for neighbours, feeding dogs in the park and shopping at the supermarket, highlight the irony of her situation or, rather, how “people have misread (Margot) throughout life”.

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Markus&Markus’ treatments of the even more sensitive aspects, such as religion and suffering, are notably tender and avoid didacticism. In addressing religion, a loving goodbye letter from Margot’s pastor is shared, as is Margot’s diary entry recounting the multiple interventions in her suicide attempts and her ambivalence towards religion: “Dear God, I hear the threat in your daily sermons.” In another sequence, the never-ending list of illnesses and disabilities are read off Margot’s report while Markus goes around the long table popping pills and drinking from pre-set party glasses whilst toasting to footage of Margot, who sits on the couch with her neighbour’s dog seemingly content. This ends with the jarring visual of Markus downing champagne from a bottle before projectile-vomiting both pills and beverage onto the stage.

Margot’s story, interjected by a science presentation on Sodium Barbitol (complete with Q&A!) as well as a grief-ridden reflection monologue on lesser known treatments of death in different cultures, amongst other things, is powerfully told. The weaving of poetry (eg. Hermane Hesse’s In the Fog) and classical music (eg. Richard Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde) into the fabric of the Ibsen-inspired storytelling extends the reaches of Markus&Markus’ sincere and masterful documentary, finding echoes of Margot’s story in literature without depersonalizing the protagonist. But, in the end, is one to see their self in Margot? Or was that merely her ghost?

It’s strange to wander in the fog!
Life is loneliness
No Man knows the other one,
And one is all alone.

Review written by Nigel Choo for Bakchormeeboy.com

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