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Oslo’s International Ibsen Festival: Norway lauds its most famous son

Peer Gynt at this year's festival. Photo: Matthias Horn Peer Gynt at this year's festival. Photo: Matthias Horn
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To the outside observer it may seem a weighty biennial, organised by an august institution, a national upholder of a 19th-century legacy. In reality, Oslo’s International Ibsen Festival has the reflexes of a fast-moving fringe with all the buzz and impact that a platform of socially and artistically relevant experimental work should bring to audiences.

Curated by the National Theatre of Norway, with the remit of gathering Ibsen and Ibsen-inspired productions from around the world to complement homegrown offerings, the festival throws up a surprise each edition, usually a big budget or big stage reimagining from some wunderkind director fresh out of Germany. Indeed, the National very much sees the festival as an open house that works as a catalyst. For example, in recent years it was instrumental in introducing the idea of postmodern director theatre to Norway, where Ibsen productions had previously been more actor-oriented.

This year, thanks to a mix of a slimmed-down budget and an agenda addressing the dilemmas of the social upheavals of our times, the writer was definitely back in the driving seat. The 2016 festival revealed itself to be an inspiring run of slick new writing that also brings out the best in directors and actors. It was still Ibsen, albeit with everything gloriously ripped up, appropriated and postmoderned, often beyond recognition – and highly political with it.

As festival director Runi Sveen explains: “The theme for this year was ‘after Ibsen’, because we wanted to see new voices, new playwrights, new directors who put the agenda into society as Ibsen did in his day. So what we were looking for was very wide-ranging, and since we had Let You Be, a new [non-Ibsen] work by [Ibsen Award winner] Arne Lygre, we particularly wanted to look further to the new voices.

“So the productions that we found like Water Games [Zimbabwe], Child [Hungary] and When the Dead Awaken [Greece] in fact are new writing which we thought would generally follow that ‘after Ibsen’ vision, but then it went so political.

Hedda Gabler at the International Ibsen Festival
Anna Petersson’s Hedda Gabler

“When we looked at the productions from countries like Greece, Italy, Zimbabwe, the UK and Germany, it was clear that they had all taken issues from the societies they were part of and saw that theatre can still influence society in a way or try to comment on what’s going on. We didn’t know, we weren’t looking for political.”

And it was a packed, liberally surtitled programme that thoughtfully delivered, including Icelandic director Thorleifur Arnarsson and writer Mikael Torfason’s glorious mash-up Vildanden + En Folkefiende – Enemy of the Duck, Hungarian Dollardaddy’s Gyermek (Child), a Dogme take on A Doll’s House, and German-Zimbabwean production Water Games, directed by Jens Vilela Neumann, which sets An Enemy of the People in Zimbabwe of today, where it’s not just the water that’s of questionable purity.

Hedda Gabler received several outings, among which was Anna Petersson’s Swedish-Norwegian in-yer-face adaptation that pitted a live black box Hedda (Electra Hallman) against a video-screen recording of the three men ruining her life. Like Tarantino meets, well, Ibsen, there was a constant stream of darkly self-referential humour (and guns) that drives the tension while refusing to make a victim out of Hedda.

Borkman, adapted by Gabriella Bussacker and director Jan Bosse, was similarly in-yer-face but with an ensemble that plays across the audience in a custom-made in-the-long space that literally turns the plot inside-out. It becomes a scarily comic family affair as bitter Borkmans Sr and Jr find themselves hounded by the equally bitter women of the family – and Borkman’s descent into hell grabs the laughs right up to the crushing yet bizarrely exquisite finale.

Elsewhere, Australian director Simon Stone’s German-language script for Peer Gynt was a rollicking reworking that casts Gynt as an ambivalently sympathetic female anti-hero in a sparse German-genre production with startling Oz humour. With possible shades of Autumn Sonata and Cloudstreet, the show is a winner in any language, if only for the bad sex, leftfield comedy and the chorus line of trolls dressed as clowns.

Among the non-Ibsen texts was Norwegian Arne Lygre’s Let You Be, directed by Johannes Dahl. Set against the abstract lines of a flowing plywood set that ripples up and away from the audience, a cast of five search for others to talk to as they piece together a life-altering incident. Hard-hitting yet gentle, it’s a cat’s cradle of overlapping relationships and dialogue that becomes all the more human for its abstractness.

Jan Sælid in Borkman. Photo: Oyvind Eide
Jan Sælid in Borkman. Photo: Oyvind Eide

And adding another dimension by virtue of taking one away was Lay Down With Ibsen, a three-part radio version from 1999 of verse drama Brand fused into one multilayered work. The audience lie on cushions in the plush main bar of Oslo’s National Theatre, don eye masks and simply listen. As Gunhild Nymoen, head of radio drama at public broadcaster NRK, says: “It’s unusual to have the opportunity for an audience to sit together like this and listen to something. In fact, the broadcast fits in with the 150th anniversary since Brand was written and it’s a timely reminder that radio drama in Norway is 90 years old. We also have a gift for listeners – every play on NRK from 1997 backwards is now free and accessible, over 3,000 plays.”

The programme also included three shows from the UK’s Forced Entertainment, in the spotlight as recipients of 2016’s International Ibsen Award – established by the Norwegian government in 2007 with a purse of 250,000 (£214,500) for individuals who have made an outstanding contribution to the development of world drama and performing arts. The company is not the first British winner of the prize – Peter Brook was the first recipient in 2008 – but it is the first group to do so and received the award in a live-streamed ceremony during the festival on the National’s main stage.

Committed devisers with a high regard for its audiences, Forced Entertainment is also notable for the way it has built up a high profile overseas. “The scene in mainland Europe and other parts of the world have been really important for us,” says artistic director Tim Etchells, “because it’s been receptive to different kinds of theatre and approaches to theatre. Certainly we’ve had a welcome from countries like Germany and Belgium that has been harder to find in the UK. So while our work has been supported by the Arts Council and many other partners and organisations in the UK, we’ve really only been able to sustain the work that we’ve done over the last 32 years because of these strong partnerships overseas.”

The International Ibsen Award went to Forced Entertainment (below left) – pictured from left are artistic director Tim Etchells, Cathy Naden, Claire Marshall, Terry O’Connor, Richard Lowdon, Norwegian minister of culture Linda Cathrine Hofstad Helleland and Robin Arthur. Photo: Oyvind Eide
The International Ibsen Award went to Forced Entertainment (below left) – pictured from left are artistic director Tim Etchells, Cathy Naden, Claire Marshall, Terry O’Connor, Richard Lowdon, Norwegian minister of culture Linda Cathrine Hofstad Helleland and Robin Arthur. Photo: Oyvind Eide

Has there been an Ibsen resonance across the years in the Forced Entertainment catalogue? “I don’t think so. We’re quite removed from literary theatre in general. Our work tends to come from devising, from a very collective structure. So with the exception of the Shakespeare project which we’ve done over the last two years, we’ve not really been near dramatic literature. But that spirit of innovation and challenge which the Ibsen awards committee looks for, that’s very strong with us, so you definitely see a connection there.”

Two of the Forced Entertainment shows were regular theatre pieces. Etchells describes The Coming Storm as “a sort of unstable and unruly collage of quite different things”, while The Notebook is a two-hander based on the Agota Kristof novel, “which is really bleak and sort of minimal and harrowing – an amazing text”. There was also And on the Thousandth Night, a six-hour totally improvised durational piece that subverts the idea of A Thousand and One Nights – “It’s a very playful piece but very important in our work.” Seven performers tell stories, none of which are allowed to finish as the audience can come and go whenever they want. The company also took centre stage in a one-day symposium, entitled This Is How It’s Going to Work: The Theatre of Forced Entertainment, curated by Norwegian critic Therese Bjorneboe in the chair.

5 things you need to know about Henrik Ibsen’s legacy

1. Founded in 2000, the International Ibsen Festival has produced 15 festivals with around 280 events and productions by companies from Norway and abroad. It is produced every two years by Norway’s National Theatre in Oslo as part of its regular programme. Ibsen is the most staged writer for the theatre output outside of the festival.

2. The previous festival in 2014 set a new attendance record, confirming it as Norway’s largest and most important theatre festival. At the same time, the Ibsen Festival has become even more international with audiences.

3. The International Ibsen Award was founded by the Norwegian government in 2007. It funds it to the tune of 2.5 million Norwegian kroner (£232,000).

4. Based in Shanghai and founded in 2010, Ibsen International is a company that presents Ibsen in China, a collaboration with partners in China and Norway to present Ibsen’s plays as Chinese opera and contemporary dance. It also hosts an Ibsen festival for students in China. Support comes from the Norwegian embassy in Beijing and consulate in Shanghai and Guangzhou, as well as other foundations in China and Norway. ibseninternational.com

5. In 2006, the centenary of Ibsen’s death, A Doll’s House was that year’s most performed play in the world. In 2001, in recognition of its historical value, UNESCO entered Ibsen’s autographed manuscript collection for A Doll’s House into the Memory of the World Register.

In the programme but outside of the festival was an Etchells solo show, A Broadcast/Looping Pieces, an improvised work at the nearby Black Box Teater. “Black Box are people we’ve worked with in the past in Oslo,” explains Etchells. “So when they got wind of Ibsen and the season here, they were like, ‘Can we also do something here in the frame of our seasons?’ – so it’s great to be able to that as well.”

In the UK we regularly get to see Forced Entertainment, but with the rest of the programme packing such a punch too, it would be good to see some of the other shows making their way over here. This begs the question: why don’t we see more Norwegian productions on UK stages? Given the cultural and linguistic similarities between the two countries and our own growing acceptance of surtitled stagings, we’re long overdue the type of stage Nordic invasion that we’ve already seen with TV, film and music.

In fact, since English is so widespread in Norway, English-language versions of Norwegian productions are not such a huge step nor in any way an artistic challenge. A recent taster – at this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe – was Pernille Dahl Johnsen’s A Remarkable Person. Produced by Ines Wurth, who has an eye for international productions that find their audience in the Anglo world, Johnsen’s satire convinced with an English script delivered by a Norwegian cast who stayed true to the values of the original, Et Unikt Menneske.

After another milestone year of bringing shows to Norway with the International Ibsen Festival, it would be good to capture some of the momentum kick-started by the National and see what inspiration, and shows, we can bring back over to the UK.

Profile: International Ibsen Festival

Artistic director (festival): Runi Sveen
Director (National Theatre): Hanne Tomta
Location: Oslo
Founded: 2000
Dates (biennial 2016): September 8-25
Shows (2016): 40 productions, approximately 180 performances/events
Audiences (2014): 18,000
Tickets sold (2014): National Theatre venues – 10,200; other venues – 5,000; National Theatre fringe events – 3,200
Funding levels: The International Ibsen Festival is financed through the National Theatre’s general operating budget. There is no extra public funding for the festival. It represents a major undertaking for the theatre, which runs the festival in addition to its normal work, with a few seasonal staff and volunteers to add to the festival team. The National and festival funding model is 70% from public subsidies and 30% from ticket sales and sponsorships.
Key contacts: Elisabeth Sodal, communications manager, elisabeth.sodal@nationaltheatret.noibsenfestivalen.no; nationaltheatret.no

An archive on previous festivals is available at bit.ly/nto-archive and a database of Ibsen productions at ibsenstage.hf.uio

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