sat 22/06/2024

When We Dead Awaken, The Norwegian Ibsen Company, Coronet Theatre review - living death, dying life | reviews, news & interviews

When We Dead Awaken, The Norwegian Ibsen Company, Coronet Theatre review - living death, dying life

When We Dead Awaken, The Norwegian Ibsen Company, Coronet Theatre review - living death, dying life

Ibsen anticipates Beckett in his strange final play, austerely staged with dashes of wit

Ragnhild Margrethe Gudbrandsen and Øystein Røger in 'When We Dead Awaken'All images by Tristram Kenton

In Ibsen's last and shortest play, further cut here, four people nominally climb a mountain, but actually seem to be crossing waste land towards the land of Samuel Beckett. It’s an amazing play in which reality is symbolic and symbols are real, where not one character is likeable and all speak with hallucinatory directness. The Norwegian Theatre Company, very much welcome back to the Coronet Theatre, do much of its strangeness justice.

Everyone who’s seen either the play or the film of Willy Russell’s Educating Rita will remember the protagonist’s response to the essay title “Suggest how you might resolve the staging difficulties inherent in a production of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt” - “Do it on the radio”. When We Dead Awaken is really a play for radio or film. Avoiding the kind of gimmicky attempt at an al fresco landscape which overwhelmed the Donmar drama of Swedes in the Alps Force Majeure, director Kjetil Bang Hansen and designer Mayou Trikerioti have jettisoned the settings of the three acts – outside a Norwegian spa hotel, a mountain health resort and the top of the mountain. They give us instead a house that looks as if it’s been bombed or long deserted, detritus piled up in a hill of sorts at the centre, a runnel heading downstage, vegetation growing in the cracks: the flotsam and jetsam of wasted lives. It’s a good use of the crumbling Coronet auditorium. Scene from Ibsen's 'When We Dead Awaken'The four main characters adapt to the wildness, sitting on the broken planks and rarely on chairs, unwinding their bitterness, hatred and dim hope. Ibsen wastes no time in telling us who they are: egotistical sculptor Arnold Rubek (Oystein Roger), unfulfilled ever since he created what he seems to accept as a masterpiece; the artist’s model for that masterpiece Irene (Ragnhild Margrethe Gudbrandsen), jettisoned after what’s described by both, she bitterly, as an “episode” and since confined to a lunatic asylum, now followed about by a mostly silent carer; Rubek’s younger wife Maia (Andrea Bræin Hovig), longing for freedom; and the wild, satyr-like hunter Ulfhejm (Irish actor James Browne, pictured above with Hovig), who can partly satisfy that yearning.

Ibsen translator and biographer Michael Meyer has written about “a certain kind of abstract high-flown writing which in any prose sounds grandiose, even windy”, adding that Ibsen intended to write his last play in verse – though of course he didn’t want to admit this would be the endgame. The actors’ triumph is to make it seem inevitable, however strange, and while Ibsen pricks the artistic grandiosity of his alter ego with the reactions of the women he’s used, this production goes still further in making it actually funny at times.

Scene from Ibsen's 'When We Dead Awaken'That, at least, is the case when Irene asks about the fate of her “child”, Rubek’s marble masterpiece “The Day of Resurrection”. It’s been buried alive in the tomb of a distant museum, he tells her, and is forced to confess that her sculptured figure has been moved back on a bigger plinth to accommodate all sorts of humans with bestial essence beneath their human masks swarming out of a curved and fissured earth, putting himself at the front as a figure tormented by guilt.

There’s a weirder kind of playfulness between Maia and her hunter – edgy, dangerous, ultimately resolving to “stitch our tattered lives together”. They descend to the existence that the older couple sees as death, while Rubek and Irene ascend to the new life. It’s unstageable, and some of Ibsen’s directions are read out by the actors. Is that it, we ask? But the playwright himself left us with a sketch of a final act: the brevity of old age, like a Shakespeare late romance.

As with everything else in the play this denouement aspires to music, with its haunting refrains, its central quartet; someone should write an opera on it, but one that would have to be as lean, hungry and, fitfully, lyrical as the original drama. All credit to Bang-Hansen for keeping the peripheral sounds to a minimum, Meanwhile, there’s music in the actors’ delivery, switching from Norwegian to English for the scenes with the stranger-hunter, though the most striking sing-songiness comes in the original language from Gudbrandsen’s Irene (pictured above right). See it: I guarantee you won’t find the play better, or even as well, done by a British company.

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