When We Dead Awaken – Coronet Theatre, London

Reviewer: Jane Darcy

Writer: Henrik Ibsen

Director: Kjetil Bang-Hansen

It is rare to find a production of Ibsen’s last play, When We Dead Awaken, which he wrote in 1899. It’s a challenging work, so it is admirable that the Coronet Theatre together with the Norwegian Ibsen Company stage this production, played mainly in Norwegian, with surtitles.

We are a long way from the realist world of The Doll’s House. When We Dead Awaken is effectively a modernist work which belies its seemingly conventional premise of a lifeless marriage between a famous sculptor Rubek and his young wife Maia. Ibsen’s interest is all in the symbolism. The setting of a near-empty spa town suggests the hollowness of middle-class social aspirations. The lifelessness of the marriage is signalled by Rubek’s reneging on his early promise to take Maia to the mountain top to show her ‘the world in all its glory’. Instead he suggests a safe option: a cruise of the fjords. The play concerns a chance encounter between Rubek and his former muse, Irene, the model who inspired his masterpiece Resurrection. It is she he will take to the mountain top. Meanwhile Maia will go there too, impressed by the Mellors-like vitality of the bear-hunter, Ulfhejm.

Kjetil Bang-Hansen’s direction brings out the mannered nature of the encounters. The imaginatively designed set by Mayou Trikerioti plays a key role in this, keeping the actors largely confined to different parts of the stage. A huge pile of rubble does duty both as the mountain and as the ruin of the Rubek marriage. There is a Doris Salcedo-like cleft in the ground which implies the border separating characters and aspirations. Later it becomes a reviving mountain stream.

Øystein Røger captures the self-absorbtion of Rubek, and Andrea Bræin Hovig embodies the girlishness of Maia. Their irreconcilable differences are clear. Ibsen’s writing makes it harder for actors to suggest that the connection between Rubek (Øystein Røger) and his muse Irene (Ragnhild Margrethe Gudbrandsen)is still a vital one. Ibsen loads their characters with rather stilted dialogue about idealised love. An added difficulty is that the surtitles, projected onto a ruffled curtain, are hard to read. There are puzzling references to the knife Irene carries at all times. She talks of having killed her children. We assume this is a metaphor, but we see her drawing the knife when Rubek’s back is turned. The ultimate meaning of the knife remains unclear. It stands in contrast to the weapons Ulfhejm carries for hunting on the mountains. But Uflhejm himself is a barely fleshed out character: James Browne bravely tries to invest him villainy.

As a play, it’s badly flawed. As a production this When We Dead Awaken has a certain fascination.

Runs until 2 April 2022

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Rarity for Ibsen completists

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One Comment

  1. Good review. The play is definitely interesting, with flashes of genius amid the cliches. But then it’s a cliche because it’s true, as someone once said. I suppose the lead characters are more self-aware than is normal, delivering little homilies about their foibles. Irene is spooky and doom-laden and seems to want to tell us how many people she’s killed, such that we swiftly realise it’s metaphorical or allegorical. Or maybe it’s about how the end of any great love is like a death, with he or she who wields the knife like an executioner. Is Ibsen basically saying that without love, life is nothing?

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