- Ibsen in Practice: Relational Readings of Performance, Cultural Encounters and Power by Frode Helland
Frode Helland begins Ibsen in Practice: Relational Readings of Performance, Cultural Encounters and Power with a confession. The "point of departure" for this study, he writes with a twinge of humility, "lies in quite a naïve wish to understand this conundrum: that the plays written by a nineteenth-century Norwegian with limited economic and cultural capital are still performed across the globe" (1). This seemingly simple inquiry is rooted in one of the basic tenets of research for any scholar of theatre history—the importance of context in the creation and [End Page 142] production of dramatic work—and does not, at its outset, seem poised to advance the conversation of cross-cultural Ibsen performances much beyond the comprehensive 2010 essay collection edited by Erika Fischer-Lichte, Barbara Gronau, and Christel Weiler, Global Ibsen: Performing Multiple Modernities (Routledge). Yet what initially appears to be another volume of case studies analyzing individual productions of a playwright's repertoire becomes, in Helland's hands, an intricately layered exploration of the complex relational connections that contribute to the construction of a global "Ibsen."
The broad structure of Helland's study is effectively framed to interrogate the relationships among varying cultures, economies, and national politics as expressed in contemporary interpretations of Ibsen's work across four continents. With the exception of the book's first chapter, which concentrates solely on the work of German director Thomas Ostermeier, most of the sections are formed thematically, examining productions linked by circumstances (such as government censorship in chapter 3) or location (Chile in chapter 2 and China in chapter 4) to demonstrate the plurality of Ibsens in performance. Each production, presented with exacting detail, is dissected to illuminate the adaptation's allegorical significance and to "emphasise the social and political production of 'Ibsen' as an ongoing process" (3). In his convincing exploration of four Chilean productions of A Doll's House, for instance, Helland traces the far-reaching effects of the 1973 coup d'état and subsequent national trauma of Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship. Discussions of A Doll's House often center on issues of gender, but Helland's primary focus is refreshing in its return to the larger issues of economic and class disparity that drive much of Ibsen's work. Helland charts the resonance of the plot's social and financial aspects through Pinochet's failed effort to restructure the Chilean economy, resulting in the same kind of crippling debt and "economic entrapment" faced by Nora and Krogstad in the 1980 production at Chile's Catholic University (53). The complications of the country's increasing inequality post-Pinochet are further explored in an analysis of Alfredo Castro's 2006 production, as Helland describes in striking detail the adaptation's aesthetic of consumption and waste designed to critique Chile's bourgeois middle class. The indelible connections among the work of Ibsen's adaptors across decades of political turmoil are clearly illuminated by Helland as he expertly ties the contemporary works to Ibsen's original concerns about the repercussions of global capitalism on individual freedoms.
Helland's vivid and engaging prose is one of the volume's greatest attributes, as his explanations of each production's aesthetics are meticulously detailed, almost novelistic, in their style. His descriptions of the set and costume designs are wonderfully tactile, and the inclusion of lighting and sound elements for each example creates an immersive experience for the reader. The care with which Helland selects and explores seemingly small details serves to deepen the connections he makes between the production's creative choices, its intended message, and the intercultural impact of Ibsen in performance. Ostermeier's use of The Beach Boys song "God Only Knows" in his adaptation Hedda Gabler (2005) becomes through Helland's analysis an incisive meditation on the ways in which commitment is now considered kitsch and how society is accepting, even [End Page 143] welcoming, of existing in a world where alienation is the norm...