This past month has been a bit of an Ibsen fest, with two plays in the past week alone. But for twice the price of a movie ticket, you get live performance and (if you’re lucky) staging beyond what you remember from your school trips to the theatre.
This was a modern, stylized performance of the play. Subdued lighting and a fog machine replaced props or the vast black stage. Rosmersholm is a story about convictions and the perceptions of society. Rosmer’s beliefs are affected by his friends (radical and conservative) and by what is published in the local paper. Tricks, insidious lies, insanity and suicide ensue – as only Scandinavians know how.
The text has the doomed lovers jumping into the foaming waters together, but the director injects doubt: Rebecca is full of conviction, and leaves to jump in, but Rosmer – who has vaccilated and questioned his own beliefs all through the play – does not follow her to death before the curtain falls.
An Enemy of the People
Again a very stylized and minimalist production. The stage is barren – locations are created using lights and shadow. While Rosmersholm was very traditional, An Enemy of the People played the form against the content.
It put on the form of a slapstick comedy, complete with spit-takes and line dancing on the serious matter of public health and the question of personal integrity. The slapstick dominated the first act, where the doctor’s life is happy and everyone was dancing cheerfully.
Towards the end, when society, the elites, his brother, everyone he thought he could count on has rejected him, the lighting rig is lowered, closer to the stage floor for each new rejection, reflecting the increasing social pressure on him.
The sound design is also more explicit and overt. While Rosmersholm had a subdued soundtrack of a distant waterfall in the background, the director of the Enemy of the People felt it necessary to underline all the major character beats with some audible cue. Metronomic beats and ghostly eerie sounds distracted from the performance more than they helped.
The Enemy of the People is a man with the strength of his own convictions – he is right, and the majority is wrong. Science and rationality trump the politically and socially expedient.
I enjoyed the themes of this play most of the three. The social forces of conformity and group power over the individual are still very much active today.
Brand is directed by the catalanian Calixto Bieito. There are many clichés about passionate Spaniards, but it does explain why this otherwise bleak play is bursting with life and color that is missing from the other performances. An antidote to the barren minimalist stages, Brand opens with a party in full swing, a giant suckling pig dominating the rear of the stage. Singing! Dancing! Sex! Three-ways! I’m sure I saw the polar-bear and the male stripper getting it on with the sexy nurse.
It is certainly not the Ibsen you read in school.
The stage thrusts a pier out among the audience, and occasionally characters enter through the audience. Before the play starts proper, a party is in full swing, and audience members are encouraged to dance or wiggle in their seats.
The scalloped oyster backdrop in the first act underlines the bubble that the party exists in. Then it deflates and transforms into the glacier / snow-fields for the remainder of the first part of the play. The scene changes happen as part of the action on stage – with either a chorus or sing-along to distract you from the actors who are clearing away props.
After the intermission, the audience returns to find a half-constructed church on stage, and Brand marches in to start whacking the plaster walls of the Nationaltheatre with a great big mallet before painting his slogan on an immense canvas sheet.
Brand is a man of unshakeable faith and conviction, but he demands equal faith and conviction of those around him. He sacrifices his son, his wife and ultimately himself to his uncompromising faith.
It’s a stunning piece of theatre – and one you should go see if you get a chance. It will hopefully shake your notion of what serious theatre can be.
Brand, Dr Stockmann and Rosmer all struggle with conviction. Rosmer loses his, Stockmann keeps his and grows stronger, while Brand lives off his until it destroys him. They all argue against the lack of conviction is the greater danger, and I suspect that today’s society would frighten or disgust them all. Our fear of causing offence and desire to avoid conflict leads us to abandon or hide our convictions in a manner that Dr Stockmann would find all to familar.