Meet the Brit invoking Marlowe’s hellish vision in a Norwegian library
Having formed and run a successful fringe company in Oxford, producer David Parrish moved to Oslo. He tells Nick Awde how broadening his horizons has given him the chance to bring English classics to new audiences
When he moved to Oslo six years ago, little did the British producer David Parrish imagine he would end up occupying one of Norway’s most iconic buildings to stage the country’s first professional production of Christopher’s Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus.
As a producer at Norway’s National Theatre, Parrish has been responsible for staging all manner of genres, but he always found himself noticing the lack of large-scale, site-specific theatre in his new surroundings. “Having produced site-specific shows in the UK, I started sniffing round and looking at places in the capital – and dreaming,” he recalls.
Next month sees the result of that research, with Parrish’s Norwegian-language Doktor Faustus performed at another national institution – the palace-like Deichmanske Hoved-bibliotek, Norway’s first and largest library located at the centre of Oslo’s government quarter where it suffered bomb damage during the terrorist attacks of 2011.
Dating from the 1930s, the neoclassical structure, nicknamed the ‘House of Stairs’, is now being replaced at great expense with a new central library. “Imagine when they planned such a grand building like the library,” says Parrish. “At the time, Norway was a poor agricultural and fishing-based country.
“It’s fascinating how a dirt-poor country decided to do that in light of the staggering transformation of Norway that followed, especially thanks to the discovery of its oil resources.”
5 tips for British theatremakers venturing abroad
1. Be brave and get on with it.
2. Play on the fact that you are British – it may be your unique selling point.
3. Present your CV as well as you possibly can.
4. Work hard to learn the language – you’ll find it’s not as bad as you think.
5. Embrace the fact that the British are not the best at everything in the world.
Struck by the symbolism, Parrish approached the library’s management and pointed out the political profile of the building.
“It’s constantly in the news here because of the hundreds of millions of krone being spent on the new one. But the old library still looks like a temple to Norway’s belief in knowledge. So wouldn’t it be nice to have a story there, a show that celebrates and challenges that belief? And that story is the Faust bit.”
A novel aspect of the project is that Marlowe has never been performed professionally in Norwegian. However, various different manifestations of Faust in theatre, music and art have regularly reached the stage.
Parrish explains: “People here associate Faust with Goethe and don’t know that Marlowe was at it 200 years earlier. People obviously know Shakespeare and in theatre circles they know some other Elizabethan writers, but Marlowe is scarcely heard of. It’s exciting to introduce the genius of Marlowe to Norway.”
For the project, Parrish has been given an unpaid leave of absence for a year from his job at the National. “One of the wonderful things about Norwegian culture and society is that many employers take the view that if you want to keep people in the long haul, one of the ways to do that is occasionally to let them go somewhere else and then come back to you.
“It’s quite common, especially if you’re permanently employed at the big cultural institutions. They like the fact that they’re not going to lose the people that do interesting things. Somehow they’re going to get you back a year or two later.”
Parrish’s company CreationOslo is an Anglo-Norwegian affair. The cast of seven are all Norwegians, led by Torbjorn Eriksen, who won best male actor in the 2015 Hedda Prizes, the Norwegian equivalent of the Oliviers.
Fellow Norwegians include dramaturg Marianne Saevig and Roy Eriksen, the international officer of the Marlowe Society. Over from the UK are collaborators Katie Catling, a producer who has worked at Northern Stage, and director Charlotte Conquest, while composer Erik Hedin hails from Sweden.
Parrish himself trained as an actor in Birmingham before turning early on to producing theatre. In Oxford, he ran Creation Theatre for 16 years, a company that started with open-air productions and then moved indoors, creating site-specific shows in unusual locations.
For family reasons – his wife is Norwegian – Parrish made the move to Norway. “I had no idea what I was going to do when I arrived here and I just saw an advert and applied. And that’s how I got the job at the National.”
Is it unusual to find a non-Norwegian employed somewhere like the National? “Yes. Not many British people would have the necessary level of Norwegian language for it to be suitable,” says Parrish.
What was your first non-theatre job?
I worked in a glass factory when I was 16. After university, I worked in banking.
What was your first professional theatre job?
An open-air production of As You Like It – I played Oliver.
What is your next job?
After Doktor Faustus I will probably return to the National Theatre in Oslo as a producer.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Do anything you can to get six months’ experience in a small, well-managed producing theatre to learn how they run things. Then you will not spend five years reinventing the wheel when you start your own company.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
My parents. As a producer, various colleagues have been a great influence: Zoe Seaton, Charlotte Conquest, Simon Gray, Adam Stephens, Neil Smith and Debbie Richards.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
Be warm and friendly.
If you hadn’t been a producer, what would you have been?
A banker, an actor, an international development worker or a priest.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
After every project when the get-out has ended, I have a moment alone in the space and give thanks.
The Norwegian theatre model differs from the UK in that state institutions dominate the country’s cultural scene, particularly in the capital, which is home to the National Theatre, the Norwegian Theatre and the stunning Oslo Opera House, which also houses a ballet and an orchestra. Then there’s the multi-stage municipal Oslo Nye Teater and the Riksteatret, which has the remit for national touring.
Just in terms of stage work, that means there are five very large and well-funded – by British standards – institutions in a city of just 700,000 people within a capital region with a population of 1.5 million.
“But there are other factors that affect theatre in London that are not so significant here,” adds Parrish. “One is the commercial theatre of the West End, which doesn’t really exist in Oslo. There are some commercial theatres but they’re not doing the level of business that they could see in London. And then there’s the scale of fringe theatre in London. Even the fringe activity that exists in the UK’s regional cities is vastly more than in Oslo.”
And while there’s a national network of support for theatre in Norway, it contrasts with the absence or lack of adequate state funding for practitioners in the UK that spurs practitioners into going out to create their own fringe companies. “I was one of them in Oxford,” says Parrish. “That question of funding is a big difference, from a producer’s perspective, between the two countries.”
Language is another motivating factor. “If you’re in the UK theatre world, especially the fringe, your vision starts quickly expanding to places like Australia, Canada or the USA. The English language helps us see the massive international potential.
“But if you’re a Norwegian, with a language spoken by just five million people, inevitably the international focus is different. Many Norwegians work in terms of where they can go for training, and if they’re lucky, they get international work there – countries like Sweden, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands and other places like the Baltics, France and Russia. The big institutions in the theatre world here appear to be much more European in that respect.”
By combining Faust, Marlowe and site-specific theatre, Parrish is bringing a very British mirror to the Norway industry, and boldly so.
He concludes: “The relevance of the Faust story to any modern society – certainly Norwegian society – is that it’s as pertinent as ever. If you’ve done the deal with the devil to sell your soul to the oil industry and to be part of destroying the world with oil, where do you go next?”
CV David Parrish
Born: 1967, Harlow
Training: Diploma in Acting, Birmingham School of Speech and Drama
Career: Creation Theatre Company Oxford; National Theatre, Oslo; Birmingham Rep; Derby Playhouse, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Harrogate Theatre
Creation Theatre Company:
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Magdalen College School, Oxford (2000)
Hamlet, BMW Plant Oxford (2001)
The Oxford Passion, Oxford Castle, 2007
International Ibsen Festival, National Theatre, Norway (2014 and 2016)