Loretto Villalobos*

Guds olydiga revben (God’s Disobedient Rib), adapted by Lærke Reddersen and Martina Montelius from the book by Gunilla Thorgren. Director: Tilde Björfors. Set: Fridjon Rafnsson. Costume: Anna Heymowska. Lighting design: Patrik Angestav. Music and sound design: Samuel “Loop Tok” Långbacka. Premiered on March 21, 2019, at The Royal Dramatic Theatre, Stockholm, Sweden.

So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man.

Inanna (Marilen Ribot Esterlich) sparks her own rebellion. Photo: Sara P. Borgström

It is difficult to take these words from Genesis 2: 21-22 at face value when Marilen Ribot Esterlich swings violently back and forth on her trapeze, attached to the ceiling inside the Royal Dramatic Theatre’s main stage in Stockholm, Sweden—that woman is created merely as a companion to man, an appendage to man’s flesh and for that reason slightly less perfect than the rest of God’s creation. In the scene that leads up to those death-defying moments, Ribot Esterlich has, as the Mesopotamian goddess Inanna, challenged her father (Hamadi Khemiri) to a drinking contest in a scheme to trick him into giving her the same powers as men possess. As she is raised up to the ceiling, after winning the drinking contest, she makes a call to arms in the name of all the forsaken women in myth and history.

This same call to arms is made, at least implicitly, by Gunilla Thorgren in the book Guds olydiga revben (God’s Disobedient Rib, 2017). How is it that these words from the Bible’s creation myth have been so powerful as to legitimize the subjugation of women and erase them from myth and history? This question is the starting point for Thorgren, a former member of the legendary radical feminist Group 8 during the 1970s, when she dives into the history of Christian thought that has laid the foundation for the subordination of women through the millennia up to this present day. Throughout the book’s chapters, Thorgren challenges the Christian history of thought and invites historical figures and contemporary feminist theologians to a conversation about women in Christianity, offering an alternative narrative to the one established by the Church Fathers.

Sven Boräng as Adam tastes the forbidden fruit offered by Ellen Jelinek as Eve. Photo: Sara P. Borgström

When the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm, together with Malmö Stadsteater, adapts the book for the stage, it is not surprising that it should be in collaboration with Cirkus Cirkör, internationally known for their work with Folkoperan in 2016 and their staging of Philip Glass’ Satyagraha—performances that gained the contemporary circus company a Europe Theatre Prize for New Realities in 2018. Cirkus Cirkör, under the leadership of Tilde Björfors, has dominated the contemporary circus scene in Sweden for over a decade. Guds olydiga revben can be seen as a sequel to last year’s Epifónima that premiered in Östgötateatern. This was Circus Cirkör’s input in the wake of the #metoo movement that exposed sexual harassment within theatre. Cirkus Cirkör wanted to take this further and not only contribute with a mere representation on stage, but extend an aesthetic as well as an organisational alternative to the patriarchy’s performance arts and their institutions.

Gunilla (Cecilia Lindqvist) shows the patriarchy the door. Photo Sara P. Borgström

In the dramatic adaptation of the book, by Lærke Reddersen and Martina Montelius, Gunilla Thorgren’s inquisitive and defiant voice is preserved and transposed to the stage by the excellent Cecilia Lundgren, who bears an uncanny resemblance to the real life author—both in attitude and physical appearance. She is a driving force in this exposé of thought, always overseeing the events on stage from her blue armchair where she sits reading her Bible. The exposé begins—naturally—with the creation of Man and, subsequently, Woman. The tone is gleeful, but it is juxtaposed to more serious topics, such as the rape of the concubine in Judges 19:22-30 and the symbolic drowning of female author Christine de Pizan—both played by acrobat and dancer Methinee Wongtrakoon. This bouncing between the joyful tone and sombre themes is consistent throughout the performance, thoughtfully balanced out by Samuel Långbacka’s suggestive soundscape.

To marry contemporary circus with theatre—on the main stage of all places—is in theory a brilliant idea, but the execution misses the mark. And ironically, one of the main reasons for this miss is this attempted marriage. What became a match made in heaven when circus was combined with opera at Folkoperan became, at worst, tedious stretches of time dedicated to declaring the wrongdoings of the Church Fathers, of Luther and the Pope—and proclaiming the heroics of such women as Guglielma of Milano and Bridget of Sweden. Cirkus Cirkör’s forte is their ability to show and not to tell, which, unfortunately, is unavoidable when you have to give an ensemble of actors lines and dialogue.

Karoline Aamås and HamadiKhemiri as Mary Magdalene and Jesus are equals. Photo Sara P. Borgström

This is not to say that the performance’s several elements were lacking in congruity and collaborative harmony. The actors are as likely to perform riveting acrobatics as the circus performers are to deliver dialogue. And when the synergy between the art forms works at its best, it is undoubtedly striking. One such instance is the airborne pas de deux of Mary Magdalene (acrobat Karoline Aamås) and Jesus (actor Hamadi Khemiri) .The mirroring movements of the two on the vertical rope showcase their relationship as equals, which the prophet and his apprentice supposedly had, according to our narrator Gunilla on the ground.

Only a few weeks after the show premiered, the director of the Royal Dramatic Theatre, Eirik Stubø, had to resign. The reason was that several complaints about the working environment in the theatre had surfaced in a second wave of the #metoo movement. There is no denying that the timing is odd. But what would inspire true change within an institution such as the Royal Dramatic Theatre, rather than the exchange of patriarchs at the top, is an approach similar to Circus Cirkör’s—that is, to offer alternative narratives from the stage; not necessarily verbally chanted as in a political rally, but performed. That is the truly agitative potential of a performance that sets out to inspire a revolution.

Cirkus Cirkör has attracted the attention of Critical Stages many times. For more please see:


*Loretto Villalobos is a freelance critic, primarily focusing on music drama, and currently a board member of the Swedish Theatre Critics Association.

Copyright © 2019 Loretto Villalobos
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Unruly Feminist Circus in the Wake of #metoo