Ferenc Kovács:

Ibsen 2000
International Theatre Festival in Norway


This year’s international 1bsen Festival surprises us with its externals. The Arabic number 1 instead of the initial I on its logo is a great graphic invention indicating that Ibsen is the number one among the playwrights that the festival is already 10 years old and that the city Oslo celebrates its 1000th anniversary. It’s a surprise that the sponsor funds that amount to a considerable proportion of the festival’s budget could be raised in the last minute. One would expect that it’s the performances that should provide for high spirits and it’s the acting or the director’s interpretation that should excite the audience and not the bankers and managers’ bargaining. In the end, certainly, there was a real theatrical surprise too, the 1bsen multimedia show. Also, the daily newspapers, - quite unusually, - gave a detailed account of the festival as if it were some kind of sports event.

Before coming to the festival itself, I would like to say a few words about our conversation with Helge Rönning, a professor of media sciences. Professor Rönning is a member in the National Ibsen Committee that was founded by the Ministry of Culture in 1998 for the co-ordination of the memorial festivals for the 100th anniversary of Ibsen’s death in 2006. He is also the chairman of the executive board of the Ibsen Centre at the University of Oslo. Answering my question, he said that it is Norway’s mission to promote the Ibsenian traditions. First of all, since Henrik Ibsen was, - besides Knut Hamsun,- the most significant Norwegian writer of all time. Also, he is, together with Shakespeare, - the most staged dramatist in the world. It’s him who made a great impact on the playwright generation following him, and he accounts for the birth of the modern drama. It is Norway’s mission to show this playwright of world-wide significance to the world, who, according to Helge Rönning, is a European writer in the first place, to play his plays and to make his legacy available and free for research. That’s why the Ibsen Centre could finally be set up in 1992 after long and severe struggles. That’s why the critical review of the complete works of Ibsen has been made and will have been available in the shops in 2001. That’s why there is an Ibsen festival. It attempts to urge the foreign and Norwegian theatres on new and new theatrical interpretations. For it is urgently needed to have more modern Ibsen interpretations especially in Norway in addition to fostering its traditions. Helge Rönning also talked about how important it is to have Ibsen’s oeuvre in every possible form available. The above mentioned critical review will also be published on CD-ROM. Some of his best-known works have already been completed in computer digital versions, which are accessible on the net partly in Norwegian partly in English (http: // It is Norway’s obligation to support the new and new Ibsen translations and publications. The conferences that were held parallel to the Ibsen Festivals, served this purpose well. So did the latest one too, that dealt with the difficulties of Ibsen translations or the Ibsen on Screen two years ago and the former Ibsen Theatre Symposium. It is not easy to foster Ibsen and other national notabilities’ traditions in Norway where a deep sense for democracy is rooted in people who don’t acknowledge anyone superior or better to them or others, where the idea of equality is so deeply imprinted in people’s minds. They are only acting out of duty when they keep the memories of their arctic explorers, artists and athletes. The Ibsen Festival is not in a good position either. Although Norway considered culture as a state institution as early as between the two world wars and mainly after the Second World War, at present it treats its cultural institutions less generously. It supports the Ibsen Festival only indirectly through the state funds given to the National Theatre. Thus, sponsor funds are always badly needed and if raised too late they jeopardise the selection of the foreign and possibly more expensive productions.



Ordinary people here in Norway can only perceive the increased number of news in the media before a given festival and they don’t always reflect the real values and interests. According to the public-opinion poll, the majority of the population is against the building of the Norwegian National Opera and the state-financed cultural festivals. But this year all the Ibsen performances had full houses and experts also showed a huge interest. Finally, as Professor Helge Rönning remarked, this year’s festival was, similarly to the previous ones, varied and illuminating. There will always be better and less successful guest performances, but the point is that we should get acquainted with other nations’s interpretation of Ibsen and their theatrical traditions. This year’s two extremes, in terms of interpretation and not of quality are the staging of the traditional Doll’s House by the English Shared Experience and the Ghosts by the German Volksbühne, which is famous for its experimental productions. The others were lined up between these two like on a colour scale. The Lithuanians were rather experimental and reformer with their Hedda Gabler, as well as the Russians with their Doll’s House. The Norwegians were, however, very traditional with the Lady Inger of Ostraat and the very rarely staged The League of the Youth. We saw performances in which the directors didn’t dare to innovate or to turn to new solutions as in the Danish The Wild Duck and the Norwegian The Lady from the Sea. I may be partial but I am going to write about two performances in detail. A Doll’s House by the Londoners and the extraordinary Ghosts by the Berliners.

A great expectation preceded the guest performance of the English Shared Experience Theatre on the main stage of the Oslo National Theatre. The theatre company’s permanent residence is in the Soho, London, however, they have been on tour for more than 20 years staging mainly plays that deal with women’s emancipation issues. The premiere of the Doll’s House took place in Oslo and the production will be included in their tour programme only afterwards. I would like to start by saying that the audience here was deeply disappointed, they expected a bolder interpretation from this theatre company. The more conservative British audience might find this interpretation of the Doll’s House more interesting, however, society in Norway is more permissive as it is well reflected in the present “family” events of the Norwegian royal dynasty. (First the crown prince rented a flat and moved out of the royal court, then he bought a flat and went to live with his girlfriend who has an illegitimate 3-year-old son, whose father had already been sentenced for drug possession.) So the Doll’s House directed by Polly Teale couldn’t shock the audience in Oslo even though the young director skilfully intensified the conflicts between the genders with acting and other means. It was straight away visible that the coloured men, Torvald and Krogstad didn’t treat the pale and delicate Nora as an equal partner. The seemingly groundless masculine force and loud words finally played an important role in emphasising their superiority. A clever directing idea emphasised Nora’s conflict of conscience. The men who induced Nora’s fantasy and anxiety – Krogstad, the dead father and doctor Rank – regularly appeared physically in the dimmed stage light. These scenes are powerful and inspiring. So are the opening scene and the one after the interval. Nora is coming out from the small doll’s house, which is on the stage during the entire play like a butterfly from the cocoon, she assembles her body from pieces, and comes into existence before our very eyes. It’s a beautiful scene so is the closing one, where Nora leaves Helmet’s house by splitting the wall of the back set in piercing light and snowfall with birds twittering and promising a new spring.

Ghosts on the main stage of the Oslo National theatre. The scenery is remarkably interesting. The space is covered with light metal V-shaped clouds from above, two huge units overhanging the stage come above the auditorium too. It can be interpreted as the cracked crust of the earth from a bottom-view locking up the hell. This idea seemed to be confirmed by the wide, black and grey, upwardly-narrowing stairs in the background, on which some privileged characters could break through to the surface and the sun sometimes. It is a simple but puzzling scenery. There was an exit in the middle of the stage. Did it lead even deeper? Into hell’s hell? What did Sebastian Hartmann, the young director of the Berliner Volksbühne wanted to suggest in his interpretation of Ibsen’s Ghosts that justified this scenery-underworld? It came to light quite often during the play. Although Ibsen’s characters recited the greatest part of the original piece, they mainly intended to talk about contemporary Germany in not a bit flattering way, not a bit politely, in fact very rudely, roughly, tactlessly, occasionally even with tastelessly pervert movements, in grotesquely distorted tone, with effects intensified to the extremes. Is this the right way to interpret Ibsen? Is it at all Ibsenian to reveal emotions and senses to these extreme extents? If we like it or not, this performance, reflecting our times, roughly interpreting Ibsen’s words and ideas is quite sensational as it is. It is not easy to decide how much blood has to flow away, how many times someone has to be shot down in order not to rise again. This evening the audience could see that one can’t create a sensation or produce an effect in any other way than in a shocking- and then alleviating-compensating-grotesque-farcically-way. With genius actors and actresses, perfectly choreographed acting and with the applying of a varied range of theatrical spectacles. From the audience those who are adapted to the cruel reality, though awkwardly, were laughing throughout the play. The over-sensitive who are unwilling to see and acknowledge the horrors of the world, got sick or left prematurely. An account on a theatre festival should end dramatically or at least with a surprise. During the festival there reared a strange, chrome-glittering, four-legged thing opposite the main entrance of the National Theatre, as if it had wanted to gore the citadel of theatrical culture with its horns. In the evenings the audience who streamed out after the performances was received by computer music, strange hissing sounds and clicks and clacks. We could follow Peer Gynt’s dream-way on the back of the billy-goat through the romantic, mountainous, Norwegian scenery on a huge, tightened, computer-projected screen above the entrance. It wasn’t the incidental Peer sitting on the back of the goat who controlled its movements when following the features of the scenery but the computer programme controlled the hydraulics in the legs of the goat (similarly to the more and more popular skiing or switchback railway-stimulators.) Not only the ‘rider’ but also the numerous incidental audience experienced a special Ibsen interpretation.

Translated by Monica Rees


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