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FringeReview UK 2022

When We Dead Awaken

Norwegian Ibsen Company and The Print Room at The Coronet

Genre: Adaptation, Classical and Shakespeare, Drama, European Theatre, Mainstream Theatre, Short Plays, Theatre, Tragedy, Translation

Venue: The Print Room at The Coronet, Notting Hill


Low Down

Director and Adaptor Kjetil Bang-Hensen English translation against the original Norwegian opens at the Print Room, with Set and Costumes by Mayou Trikerioti and Amy Mae’s lighting. Peter Gregson produces a compositional envelope. Casting Director Leila Bertrand.

Till April 2nd.


The Coronet’s genius loci is dishevelment, cultivating a refusal to refurbish mere surface. Mayou Trikerioti’s set for Ibsen’s 1899 When We Dead Awaken extends this to badly-boarded arches and a pyramid of debris suggesting collapse from the ceiling. Floorboards are torn up and a water channel gouges its way downstage right. A seasoned theatre-goer not used to the Coronet’s ways asks if health and safety are followed here.

Emphatically not: it’s Ibsen’s last play. Smashing his own conventions, returning to a genius-ruined poetry; ruined and wrong art, ruined people, the possibility that everyone’s dead from an avalanche and haunt the space like revenants, or everything begins again. Ibsen’s both setting down in a hurry (it’s his shortest play, slightly edited here to 75 minutes), but setting out too, regretting his self-banishment from verse. It might be prose but not as we know it. Obscure? The characters’ coiled furies hit you between the eyes. Literally, since the Norwegian’s in surtitles.

The Norwegian Ibsen Company again collaborate with the Coronet after their triumphant 2019 The Lady From the Sea, to produce the most elusive Ibsen work of his maturity. Director and adaptor Kjetil Bang-Hensen alternates Norwegian with English translation – the rich rasp of Norwegian against English as a kind of private language, both intimate and distant at the same time.

With costumes as well as set by Mayou Trikerioti there’s a move to Rational Dress and vaguely roomy turn-of-the-century clothing, saving taut black garb for the Nun. Amy Mae’s lighting gestures suffusion, perhaps mist: there’s nothing bright till the end. Peter Gregson’s musical envelope veers to a naturalistic tang gone wild and alien.

Øystein Røger’s Arnold Rubek, a famed sculptor, has brought his dissatisfied young wife – Andrea Bræin Hovig’s Maia – to a favourite hotel where he once created his greatest sculpture, ‘Resurrection Day’, also Ibsen’s first title for this work. It just so happens his model for that, Ragnhild Margrethe Gudbrandsen’s Irene lurks nearby, seemingly up for revenge.

Rubek’s sin is art, not being sexually a man to either muse or wife, as if thwarted sexuality is a price all three pay, but only one willingly: till now. We’ve seen this in Ibsen’s last-but-one drama from 1894,  Little Eyolf. The man not woman gives up sex to rear a child, though this one, a sculpture, sucks life like a homunculus from its model. She’s died, Irene declares.

Irene too is pursued, though in this production the menace is played down. She’s convinced Luisa Guerreiro’s mysterious Nun is sent to straitjacket her. Indeed the Nun is Irene’s Moon, never far, even peregrine. To be fair Irene’s disposed of husbands, driving two to suicide.

Maia’s shadow is far earther. James Browne’s excellent Ulfhejm, a bear-hunting troll out of Peer Gynt, greets the sculptor and makes for the wife: the couple far from offended, indeed seem relieved. Browne, speaking an Irish-inflected English, adopts a truculent idiom both brutally poetic (dogs are friends he mercy-kills) and in its directness, not all it seems. Finally, stumped at Rubek and Irene’s decision, he reverts to urgent commands Maia at least can respond to.

Maia pointedly calls Rubek Rubek, not Arnold as Irene does, intimately. Later Maia just mockingly addresses her soon-to-be-abandoned husband as ‘Professor’ in Ulfhejm’s sight. It’s a divorce by lightning flashes of a name, reversing to first acquaintance and vanishing point.

Bræin Hovig’s portrayal of a frustrated, subtly-abused, dismissed woman reveals someone who embraces her own sexuality and acts. Frustration sours her and she’s been critically slighted; but her final explosion of verse leaves us in no doubt of her vitality, and how Ibsen prizes it.

Røger’s Rubek often refuses to look either Maia or even Irene in the eye, and Røger’s gradual thaw is calibrated in Rubek’s reluctant swivel towards both women. Røger’s excellent at walking a tightrope of reserve and bewilderment, frozen self-loathing with sudden playfulness, as Irene draws him out. Soon they’re flicking water from that gouged channel at each other.

Gudbrandsen’s Irene inhabits a Lorcan world of duende (the Nun’s role seems curiously Spanish or Italian too). Her confronting ‘Arnold’ provides the most explosive scenes, rendering all before it merely the sparkle on that channel. Ratcheting resentment Gudbrandsen suggests far deeper charges against her Pygmalion, and seems to have taken it out on others in a primal release of furies. Death-in-life, thwarted sexuality, a life sucked dry, transposed to a clay that entombs them. This production strips some arguably redundant (and squirmy) dialogue at the end; all essentials are here. It’s a thrilling breaking down.

The final scene’s deliberately played down too: a distant roar, not a full avalanche, or mist, as if we’re in an offcut Strindberg dream sequence, or posthumous existence. It underscores symbolism, redemption even, ushering out Ibsen’s hard-won realism with the 19th century, Janus-facing the 20th.

This elusive masterpiece is so rarely performed, seeing it is an imperative. Played with such authority as here, in Norwegian and English, it’s not a luxury but a must-see. As is the detritus the Coronet makes its own. Well, Beckett’s back next in How it Is (Part 2).