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Norway’s Ibsen Festival shows how UK can learn from Nordic response to funding cuts

The Vikings at Helgeland at this year's festival. Photo: Oyvind Eide The Vikings at Helgeland at this year's festival. Photo: Oyvind Eide
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In a climate of ever-tightening budgets, director Runi Sveen tells Nick Awde how the festival used this to its advantage to produce a more streamlined event and why there were no UK productions on offer

The growth of international arts showcases has been a significant phenomenon across Europe, with the last 10 years seeing a particularly impactful boom in new and rebooted festivals that are theatre-focused. Although much of the drive stems from a global trend towards the soft politics of culture, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all model in terms of either programming or funding.

Funding very much alters the final shape of a festival aspiring to the international marque. Cash in the UK is historically variable, hence the ascendancy of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. In Germany the mightily funded state theatre system underwrites Theatertreffen, and likewise France for Avignon, while in other EU countries it’s a bedrock of EU money filtered through all-powerful municipalities that delivers top-notch international theatre platforms.

This is a rare arts area where the UK is not an industry leader, despite sustained efforts from the likes of London International Festival of Theatre, Manchester International Festival, Greenwich and Docklands and Birmingham’s BE. That magic combination of place, space and funding is often elusive in the UK, but there may be inspiration to be found in a Norwegian model, namely Norway’s premier offering, the Ibsen Festival.

Shorn of its original ‘international’ epithet this year, the biennial festival is a celebration of the Norwegian playwright’s work, drawing together homegrown and foreign productions. What makes this of interest is that it is organised and hosted by the National Theatre in Oslo, yet avoids the mainstage elitism evident in many other similarly inspired national theatre events in Europe.

Kjersti Botn Sandal in this year’s production of Hedda Gabler. Photo: Erika Hebbert
Kjersti Botn Sandal in this year’s production of Hedda Gabler. Photo: Erika Hebbert

The National not only inserts the festival into its regular programme, but also brings the expertise of its own in-house producers to run the event while piggybacking funding to ensure a firm financial framework. The result is accessible international theatre for all. The National partners with local theatre groups and venues to not only widen that accessibility, but also share resources.

For all the legendary size of its sovereign wealth fund (which incredibly suffered losses this year), Norway has been feeling the pinch like the rest of us – and the once untouchable arts sector has been subject to cuts. This was apparent at the 2016 festival, which was visibly reduced from the previous edition, and two years on there have been further reductions.

But there’s something to learn here. Rather than moan, the festival’s reaction has been pragmatic in an appropriately Nordic fashion, as festival director Runi Sveen explains. “We did have less money this year, so we agreed to shorten the festival – and in fact, we thought it benefited from the move by being more intensive. For example, people could stay here for the whole festival, which was for 12 days and not three weeks. It seemed a more focused festival that we thought went well. And we sold 94% of the tickets.”

Despite not having the resources to fully cast its net overseas for cutting-edge Ibsens, programming for the previous edition had visibly raised the international bar, and 2018 again established an impressive balance between homegrown and foreign productions.

Sveen however sees it differently. “I don’t think you can divide it into Norwegian and non-Norwegian. This year, for example, in terms of directors we wanted to have the ‘other eye’ on Ibsen so only had two Norwegian directors – Eline Arbo and Liv Borg Thorsen. We simply wanted to present the best of Ibsen productions in the world as of 2018.”

Further interleaving includes putting iconic directors such as Stephane Braunschweig (France), Michael Thalheimer (Germany) and Christoph Marthaler (Switzerland) shoulder to shoulder with rising theatre directors including Arbo, Sofia Jupither (Sweden), David Bobee (France) and Simon Boberg (Denmark).

National Theatre productions – Braunschweig’s The Master Builder, Jupither’s Hedda Gabler, Arbo’s The Vikings of Helgeland and Dane Jonas Corell Petersen’s work-in-progress Searching for Community – mixed seamlessly with foreign productions such as Thalheimer’s Peer Gynt (produced by Dramaten, Stockholm) and Bobee’s Peer Gynt (CDN De Normandie-Rouen). Co-productions added to the mix include Boberg’s Weight (co-produced with Demian Vitanzas Fiksjoner), directed by Boberg, and Thorsen’s The Lady from the Sea.

With Ibsen being one of the most performed playwrights in the world – up there with Shakespeare – the National’s festival committee travels around the world and sees the performances beforehand. But not all goes to plan, says Sveen. “I recall we did have some surprises in 2016, with one particular performance that had changed from what we had seen and ordered. So we now have to see everything live and also confirm in a deal that they cannot change it.”

The committee doesn’t get to see much UK work, even though past winners of the International Ibsen Award include Forced Entertainment (2016) and Peter Brook (2008). The award ceremony closes the festival and aims to honour “an individual, an institution or organisation that has brought a new artistic dimension to the world of drama or theatre” as well as offering a hefty cash prize of 2.5 million Norwegian kroner (£231,500).

In fact, audiences in the UK are unlikely to have seen much by this year’s award winner, Christoph Marthaler.  The Swiss director has largely forged his reputation in the German-speaking world with his Dada-esque musical stagings. Festival audiences got the chance to see his latest offering, Bekannte Gefuhle, Gemischte Gesichter (Familiar Feelings, Mixed Faces), which was originally produced by the Volksbuhne in Berlin.

The fact that there was no British presence in Oslo this year merely reflects the situation at so many other European festivals. “My theory is that most UK theatre companies are not repertory companies, so when a project ends it is hard to accept bookings,” observes Sveen. “They have lost the actors, the set and everything. The only solution to book them to come to Oslo in September, for example, is if they are performing between March and August the same year and were able to add Oslo into their planning the previous year.”

The Master Builder. Photo: Oyvind Eide
The Master Builder. Photo: Oyvind Eide

The festival has recently had discussions with the Old Vic to bring over The Master Builder, adapted by David Hare and directed by Matthew Warchus, and with the National Theatre for Hedda Gabler, adapted by Patrick Marber and directed by Ivo van Hove – but without success. “In the end they could not come because of different reasons. I believe that both their main actors [Ralph Fiennes and Ruth Wilson] were filming during the festival. I assume that major British stars who make big money in TV and film will not prioritise giving up four days, especially if flying from NY or LA, to come to Norway.”

Fellow NT producer David Parrish – who is British, but is now based in Norway – adds that the country’s subsidised system – as indeed most other places in Europe – differs greatly from the UK. “Obviously there are a few British companies that have become big internationally without focusing only on the UK and USA markets. The most obvious contenders who work the overseas circuit hard are the likes of Forced Entertainment, Cheek by Jowl, Complicite and Akram Khan Company.

“But the reality is that English-speaking countries offer a market of 400-plus million people, so the choice of places to perform where the British already have strong relationships are enormous. Scandinavia, the Netherlands and even countries like France and Germany need to look outside their home language markets if they want to be international.”

Back in Norway there is still work to be done after the festival. Sveen and her team are busy with invitations and discussions to take the National’s own productions from the festival to places like Japan, the Czech Republic and China for 2019. And, of course, preparations for the following festival are underway. So what’s new for 2020? “Hopefully an Ibsen in English from our Brexit friends!”

Profile: Ibsen Festival

Festival director: Runi Sveen Artistic and general manager (National Theatre): Hanne Tomta
Location: Oslo, Norway
Founded: 1999 (biennial)
Shows (2018): 13 productions, 17 events
Audiences (2018): 11,536
Tickets sold (2018): National Theatre venues – 8,264, National Theatre events – 3,272
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, representing a major undertaking for the theatre, which runs the festival in addition to its normal work. The National and festival funding model is 70% from public subsidies and 30% from ticket sales and sponsorships.
Key contacts: Runi Sveen, runi.sveen@nationaltheatret.noibsenfestivalen.no, nationaltheatret.no, internationalibsenaward.com

The International Ibsen Festival 2018 ran from September 8-19

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