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  • Peer Gynt at Bergen’s Den Nationale SceneConventional or Controversial?
  • Sarah Olive (bio)

Given Henrik Ibsen’s place at the center of Norwegian drama, it was hardly surprising that Den Nationale Scene’s production of Peer Gynt as part of the Festspillene — Bergen’s annual international festival — would be hyped up. The marketing revealed the promoters’ desperation to draw in new spectators, whether local or international, to an old, familiar play — first performed at the Christiania Theater on 24 February 1876. Audiences were promised a “controversial, vital and nightmarish version of the original play,” an experience of it “from a completely new angle” (Festspillene 2012b). Yet, while the adaptation’s director, Kjersti Horn, was keen on defamiliarizing the play, festival director Anders Beyer was also eager to prove that it is relevant to today’s audiences, speaking to universal concerns regarding human life, values, and benevolence.

There is no doubt that the performance I attended on 30 June 2012, performed in Norwegian but titled in English, was exceptionally well received by its audience. However, its success was rooted in the skillful application of established conventions from modern European theatre, rather than representing a startlingly original take on this Norwegian classic. As delineated by Paul Prescott (2012) and Simon Stephens (2012), these conventions include the incorporation of popular culture into canonical plays (particularly through music and dance); frank, even graphic, treatment of sex and sexuality; and explicit representations of the alleged “social ills” besetting today’s youth, as bemoaned by conservative governments and papers alike, from alcohol and drug abuse to wearing sparse, tight, or casual clothing.

Describing this production as pan-European could prove potentially controversial. Norwegian nationalists — politicians and artists alike — have asserted the country’s distinctness and independence from Europe, resisting suggestions that it should be absorbed into the European Union. Indeed, Ibsen and Edvard Grieg (who composed a score which has been in use since early productions of the play) are frequently identified as belonging to the Norwegian romantic nationalist movement of the mid to late 19th century, with its emphasis on the country’s unique landscape and culture, and its mission to strengthen a sense of Norwegian national identity.

The foremost way in which Horn’s fresh perspective was evident in her break from the romantic (indeed, Romantic) tradition was her attempt to produce, in her own words, “effects that force the actors to react so that they actually have to relate to what is happening on the stage and not just pretend” (Festspillene 2012a). Arguably, this is one way of avoiding the nostalgia for which Norwegian Romantic works have, in recent decades, been criticized. To this end, the action took place not in a lush, leafy Norwegian forest, but in a shallow pine shadowbox inserted into the regular proscenium arch playing space. Green tickertape fell through a gap in the top of the box, pooling on the stage floor. All the actors were onstage for the duration of the show, which included quiet preshow and post-interval partying. Actors melted discretely into and out of the action and the audience’s attention, variously standing, crouching, or sitting upstage when not speaking, so the scenes flowed seamlessly along as [End Page 176] time spent on entrances and exits was pared down to a bare minimum. Interestingly, the stress on the visual elements of the production (including the set, costuming, props, and preshow scene- setting) as an essential part of the narrative is demonstrably faithful to Ibsen. After all, an exhibition on Ibsen at the University Museum of Bergen — which included artworks created by him — noted in a commentary on one of the playwright’s landscapes that “Ibsen’s work with a brush and palette seems to have been of great value to him as a poet and dramatist. The visual stress is evident in his dramas.” Ibsen himself described writing as “mostly seeing” (University Museum of Bergen). Also in deference to the original production, Grieg’s music wove in and out, discernibly played over the action, although it didn’t accompany the action as it did in 1876. It was augmented too, by occasional sound effects such as Solveig’s palpitating heart.

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