HEDDADAGENE Theatre Festival, organized by twenty-nine Norwegian theatre companies under the festival director Åslaug Løseth Magnusson in Oslo, Norway. June 9-18, 2017.
Norway has an annual national theatre festival called Heddadagene (Hedda Days), gathering theatre companies from all around the country. In this essay, I write about Det Norske Teatre’s Mourning Becomes Electra, National Theatre’s Chaos is the Neighbour of God and Jo Strømgren Kompani’s adaptation of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House.
Det Norske Teatret (DNT, Norwegian Theatre in Oslo) is a leading theatre company in Norway. During Heddadagene, it was possible to see several performances staged by DNT. One of them is Eugene O’Neill’s Greek tragedy adaptation, Mourning Becomes Electra, staged by Eirik Stubø. As we know, O’Neill rewrote The Oresteia, Aeschylus’ trilogy, and transformed the story of Agamemnon’s royal family into a modern family tragedy. He adapted the consequences of the Trojan War to those of the American Civil War on General Ezra Mannon’s family, observing it through Freud’s psychoanalytic theory.
Set designer Kari Gravklev creates a jazz bar in the middle of the stage. Black and white photographic images and movie montages are reflected on the back wall of the stage. There are no other props except a few chairs on both sides of the stage. The performance consists of three parts called “homecoming,” “the haunted,” and “mourning becomes Electra,” unfolding the destruction of a modern family with particular emphasis on both recurring and spreading—or, more precisely, haunting and haunted feelings in the very deepest part of the characters. To expose painful and passionate feelings, actors perform occasional solo acts, singing songs such as The Doors’ Riders on the Storm and Deep Purple’s Child in Time. They are going to die, and it is only then that they (manage to) express their innermost feelings. By this choice, a performer becomes not only a soloist, but also a part of an ensemble. On the back wall of the stage, stormy autumn landscapes express the feelings of the young generation. Similarly, we are shown the mother’s memories from a time before the action of the play begins.
The choreography highlights the emotional distance between the characters. They look distant, cool, self-enclosed and lost in memories. The most palpable evidence is the scene where the mother Christine becomes very self-enclosed after her lover Adam’s death. In these scenes, the cameraman zooms in on the performers’ faces and the close-ups are superimposed on the back wall. But when they begin to sing, they also act out all the things they have long suppressed.
Each of the parts that follows shows similarly passionate relationships, particularly within the Mannon family. First, it is the father-daughter relationship between Ezra Mannon (Bjørn Skagestad) and Lavinia (Kirsti Stubø); then, the mother-son relationship between Christine Mannon (Gjertrud Jynge) and Orin (Torbjørn Eriksen); and, finally, the brother-sister relationship between Orin and Lavinia. Lavinia is shown in a very masculine style, but, after her mother’s death, she becomes a replica of her mother, wearing Christhine’s green dress. The production presents femininity as a favorable change in her.
The second production to discuss, entitled Chaos is Neighbour of God, is from the National Theatre in Oslo, written by Swedish playwright Lars Norén and staged by Kjersti Horn. It lasts three hours without a break. It is a story about a Scandinavian family whose members came together at the father Ernst’s hotel on a cold evening. The family consists of an alcoholic father, Ernst (Terje Strømdahl), a mother with cancer, Helen (Ellen Horn), a criminal son, Frank (Glenn Andre Kaada), and a schizophrenic gay son, Ricky (Emil Johnsen). Besides these, there is an old woman, Rex (Frøydis Armand), who has stayed in the hotel for a couple of years without paying.
The scenographer Sven Haraldsson has created a huge plastic curtain. Everything happens behind this projection-like curtain. Thus, we see the performance via two adjoining video projections that make us feel that we are watching filmed theatre. Here is the hotel’s waiting room with a reception desk. A cameraman follows the actors all the time and reflects the action on the screen. One screen may display one character while the other screen shows the whole stage. The camera gives us access to offstage spaces where Ricky is having a shower or Helen is cleaning the toilet.
Toward the end, something happens that we have been hoping would happen all along. Ricky tears down the projection-curtain after he has smashed everything on the stage as a response to his family’s lack of interest. Therefore, the only thing we can see with the naked eye is nothing but a ruined hotel or the stage itself.
My third topic is again a family drama, Ibsen’s A Doll’s House by Jo Strømgren Kompani—“a Norwegian dance theatre company with a large global distribution,” in their own words—staged at The Oslo Opera House. The director, set designer and also the choreographer of the performance, Jo Strømgren, creates, despite its gloomy atmosphere, a funny and playful performance space with a real dollhouse, playing with an Ibsenian sense of claustrophobia. This choice means, of course, attempting to transform the apparent metaphors of Ibsen’s drama, such as playing house and living in a “dollhouse” as a child, into a new theatrical language. In addition, to act in a scaled- down house shows the disharmony in their marriage.
A post-box which is being moved by the actors during the performance; a cabin on the right also used as Torvald’s office; and, on the left, Dr. Rank’s home where he drinks. In front of the house, there is a dangling light which signals Nora’s private space. We see Nora there reading Krogstad’s letter or telling her secret to Linde.
What captures me most is how Norwegian theatre approaches and transforms the family drama, which is also the hallmark of its traditional dramatic writing. It is worth asking how modern Norwegian family life coincides with classic and modern family dramas. Despite the peace in Oslo’s streets and happy family tableaus with large, beautiful gardens, what can be the source of uneasiness and psychotic features prevailing on the Norwegian stage? What lies behind it can surely be best explained by sociology. But, for the critics, it may be interesting, in this regard, to see all the innermost feelings on the stage as a symptomatic expression of Norwegian society, or to read how the stage hides the social and inner context in its very theatrical form, if this is not an over-interpretation.
*Eylem Ejder is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Theatre at Ankara University, Turkey. She is a member of International Association of Theatre Critics – Turkey Section and a member of the editorial board of the journal Oyun (Play). She studies theatricality, contemporary Turkish theatre, Ibsen’s dramas and modern dramatic theory. Her Ph.D. studies are being supported by The Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey (TUBITAK) within the National Ph.D. Fellowship Programme.