- Ibsen in Practice: Relational Readings of Performance, Cultural Encounters, and Power by Frode Helland
What does “relational readings” mean in the title of Frode Helland’s new book on Ibsen performance around the world? This is a methodological point addressed in the introduction. “Relational” simply indicates an interest in the inner aspects of Ibsen dramas in performance, as well as [End Page 217] external forces. One approach to Ibsen in practice might emphasize internal interpretation of the performance “as a (quasi-)autonomous object,” while another approach might make reference to contextual factors: political, economic, ideological, and cultural influences (p. 3). Helland aims for appropriate attention to both, describing his book “an in-depth analysis of the relations between theater performance and local culture, global economic forces, nationalism, soft diplomacy and political projects within, behind and outside the performance itself” (p. 9). Anyone looking for an exploration of Ibsen as performed today across cultures and in varying theater circumstances around the world will be enlightened by Ibsen in Practice, a model of careful examination of the cross-cultural transfer of canonical dramatic works in performance.
With its precise accounts of many productions across decades and cultures, its informative contextualizations, and its methodological self-awareness, Ibsen in Practice makes an excellent tool for teaching Ibsen performance and adaptation. Of course, a book like this written by a single scholar can only scratch the surface of Ibsen production worldwide, which can be further explored using mapping and data visualization at Ibsen-Stage, the growing online performance database co-created by Helland. As he leads the reader through “relational” accounts of productions on all continents, Helland makes a shrewd and cautious guide to the varying local situations and performances he describes, ultimately providing a more informed understanding of Ibsen’s transfer from late nineteenth-century bourgeois Norway across many historical, cultural, and political divides.
Chapter 1 deals with Thomas Ostermeier’s versions of Hedda Gabler and An Enemy of the People. The combination of striking artistic innovation and timely political commentary makes Ostermeier’s Ibsen productions some of the most notable and influential of the new century. Both productions aim to re-politicize Ibsen in a highly self-aware theatrical practice that directs its critical energies at neoliberalism and what Ostermeier calls “capitalist realism” (a prevalent aesthetic form that implicitly affirms neoliberalism). Chapter 2 uses performance traces such as recordings, photos, and interviews to investigate four productions of A Doll’s House in Chile, starting with a 1980 production at the Pontifical Catholic University during the Pinochet regime’s “cultural blackout” and moving on to three others from the new century. Helland underscores the specific conditions of Chilean theater under and after dictatorship while highlighting the play’s “durability as an allegorical reflection of political issues” (p. 52). He acknowledges that these Chilean productions differ drastically, but claims that “each addresses vital issues concerning symbolic and real violence, identity politics and the politics of material distribution, with critical rigour and playful humour” (p. 77). [End Page 218]
In his attention to context, Helland has an eye for the workings of the state, which he sees as playing a hugely important role in shaping theatrical productions of Ibsen across the globe, either in terms of Norwegian sponsorship or other states’ censorship. Chapter 3 addresses the ways artistic expression has been intertwined with the influence of censorship in recent Ibsen productions and adaptations. Helland opens the chapter with useful reflections on the formative role of censorship in the creative process of film and theater productions. He then turns to analyses of the influence of censorship in Vietnam (Le Hung’s 2006 Hanoi production of A Doll’s House), Iran (Dariush Mehrjui’s 1993 film Sara, an adaptation of A Doll’s House, and Nader Borhani Marand’s 2009 My Wild Duck), and China (Lin Zhaohua’s 2006 Master Builder in Beijing). Helland praises these Ibsen versions for their nuanced use of allegory and for embodying “conscious reflexive responses to a situation dominated by censorship,” as opposed to mechanical reactions to state prohibitions (p. 117...