For aficionados of Ibsen this is a production not to be missed; nor should those who just like to wallow in the velvety richness of traditional theatre ignore this rare opportunity to see the great playwright’s enigmatic final play, When We Dead Awaken. The foremost exponents and interpreters of his works, The Norwegian Ibsen Company, have again collaborated with The Coronet Theatre, Notting Hill, to create a captivating new adaptation of this rarely performed work under the celebrated director Kjetil Bang-Hansen.
A captivating new adaptation of this rarely performed work
Ibsen wrote the play in 1899. The following year he suffered the first of a series of strokes that increasingly weakened his health and incapacitated him until his death in 1906. Under different circumstances, would he have revised the play in any way; or developed the rather abrupt ending that comes across as something of a narrative description of later events? Or perhaps having dealt with the major issues it was his intention to bring matters to a swift conclusion. Either way, that is what we have and it’s disappointing only inasmuch that it would be enjoyable to experience more in the manner of what precedes the swift denouement.
This latter-years play reflects Ibsen’s increasing introspection. His days of dealing with the ills of society were fading and he began to take a more individualised focus that highlighted issues in relationships; on people’s perceptions of how the world treated them and how they treat their world and particular those closest to them. Not that these elements were previously missing, but in this work, accurately described by the theatre as ‘a strange, beautiful and bitter play about art, love, ambition and freedom’, the soul-searching becomes paramount.
The plot is also minimal. Rubek (Øystein Røger) and his much younger wife Maia (Andrea Bræin Hovig) return to Norway in the middle of winter from their extended sojourn overseas. Their relationship has become increasingly fraught and a rift exists between them. His days as a celebrated sculptor are over but Irene (Ragnhild Margrethe Gudbrandsen), the model he used many years ago for his most famous work, Resurrection, unexpectedly makes an appearance. The emotional destruction he caused her is revealed along with his true feelings towards her. As Maia becomes increasingly intrigued by the situation a rustic bear-hunter Ulfhejm (James Browne) appears and she becomes besotted with him. After various discussions, the two sets of couples independently begin an ascent of the mountain, something Rubek promised to both women but delivered to neither, during which more is revealed.
There is a strong motif of male domination throughout. Ulfhejm’s is straightforward. He lords it over the wildlife and vigorously pursues his passion for hunting, which extends to women as well. Browne, with a rough southern-Irish accent, encapsulates this man’s unsophisticated earthiness. In stark contrast, Røger depicts the subtle, refined, controlling manner of Rubek for whom women seem merely a muse or a source of companionship. Gudbrandsen manifests the damage that Rubek caused to Irene’s life in the bitterness with which she tells of the suffering Irene has endured over the years. It’s another stark contrast to the carefree sense of relief that Hovig displays at the prospect of a life of freeedon close to nature. For each of them crucial turning points loom in their lives and decisions have to be made.
The play is spoken in Norwegian with the exception of scenes involving Ulfhejm which are in English and has surtitles, but the staging, gestures and responses of the actors to each other often afford clear meaning in themselves. The same is true of the set by Mayou Trikerioti, whose mysterious pile of rubble from a demolished house is straightforwardly explained as the play progresses but also lends itself to symbolic interpretation. The whole work is enhanced by lighting from Amy Mae and a soundscape composed and designed by Peter Gregson.
The title of the play, combined with that of Rubek’s sculptural masterpiece and the imagery of climbing the mountain suggests that what we see may not be a realistic as it appears but might well be existing in a world of remembrances that occur when we dead awaken.