- Ibsen in Practice: Relational Readings of Performance, Cultural Encounters and Power by Frode Helland
It’s both odd and slightly charming that most Germans think of Henrik Ibsen as German. As Marvin Carlson once observed, when Germans refer to the Norwegian dramatist they often do so by the endearing title of “Unser Ibsen” (Our Ibsen). According to Frode Helland, however, the Germans are not alone in their cooptation of Ibsen. In his expansive new study Ibsen in Practice: Relational Readings of Performance, Culture Encounters and Power, Helland reveals how theatre-makers in Chile, Iran, China, Zimbabwe, and Egypt possess their own unique claims of kinship with Ibsen and his oeuvre. Investigating and unearthing such claims—by approaching them, in a Foucaultian sense, as always interwoven within culture—is a major undertaking of Ibsen in Practice. The book focuses chiefly on the “role that the state plays in the transmitting and shaping of…Ibsen’s plays globally,” which, in Helland’s view, largely boils down to one of two ways: “sponsorship or censorship” (4). On a more perfunctory level, Helland’s study provides extensive description and contextual analysis of major productions of Ibsen’s plays across the (mostly contemporary) global north and south, providing an opportune sourcebook for researchers and scholars across disciplines, particularly those interested in the rapidly expanding worldwide phenomenon that might best be termed: #InterculturalIbsen.
Organized by case studies of productions of Ibsen’s plays on four different continents, Ibsen In Practice begins with an introduction that clarifies its primary goal: “To chart some of the relational factors that influence the practice in the performances analysed” as part of a broader effort “to escape the mutually exclusive alternatives of internal interpretation and external explanation” (2–3). Helland is clear up front that he seeks to “emphasise the social and political production of ‘Ibsen’ as an ongoing process” (3) rather than as, presumably, a fait accompli. Helland also opposes treating Ibsen’s plays as “original” or “source” (3) material (as is often done to Sophocles or Shakespeare), noting the importance of viewing them as Norwegian. As Helland stresses throughout the book, intercultural manifestations of “Ibsen” such as a Norwegian-Chinese Doll House or an Egyptian-Norwegian Peer Gynt are often only made possible through the financial backing of the State of Norway as part of its targeted cultural optics of “soft diplomacy” (5). Charged with keeping track of Norway’s promotional agenda, as well as the political and cultural motivations of the various state apparatuses in which Ibsen’s plays have been produced, Ibsen in Practice assigns itself a rather Herculean task: to provide (in a sometimes encyclopedic manner) the intercultural contexts of each of the more than twelve productions it closely analyzes. [End Page 114]
The book’s first chapter, “Against Capitalist Realism: Thomas Ostermeier,” boldly positions the contemporary German director as the “most influential Ibsen director today” (3). Positioning Ostermeier’s versions of Ibsen, specifically the Berlin Schaubühne’s touring productions of Hedda Gabler and Enemy of the People, as neither post-dramatic nor “deep psychological portraits,” Helland rightly characterizes them as “surprisingly traditional” (15). While Ostermeier’s Ibsen is overtly critical of neoliberal capitalism, Helland argues, it evades a riskier or more powerful formalist intervention in Ibsen’s canon. With its panopticon-like revolving stage designed by Jan Pappelbaum and accompanying lounge-inspired Beach Boys soundtrack, Ostermeier’s Hedda—whose titular figure is played neither as a romantic heroine nor as a “victim of social or psychological ills” but rather with a “beautiful surface appearance” (22) by Katharina Schüttler— becomes “a portrait of a generation and a social class” (24), striving to maintain higher social status under the threateningly austere policies of the Hartz IV era.
Likewise for Helland, Ostermeier’s Enemy of the People, again designed by Pappelbaum—this time in a more Brechtian fashion to include three blackboard-covered walls on which the characters scribble and draw their fantasies, ideals, and slogans—accentuates how individuals under current economies of capitalism...