When We Dead Awaken
The Coronet Theatre
Reviewed – 5th March 2022
“Bang-Hansen’s elegant direction is right at home in the Coronet’s beautifully restored interiors”
When We Dead Awaken is Ibsen’s last play, and the master was very well aware of that as he was writing it. In consequence, it has a distinctly different tone to his earlier, better known works such as An Enemy of the People, Hedda Gabler, and A Doll House, to name just a few. The language in When We Dead Awaken shifts between the lyrical and the brutal. The play is haunting, and also elusive in its final, elegiac notes. Added to all that is the chance to see the play acted (mostly) in Norwegian, performed by (mostly) Norwegian actors. These are just some of the features that make this production, by The Norwegian Ibsen Company with the Coronet Theatre in Notting Hill, a highlight of the still evolving 2022 theatre season in London.
When We Dead Awaken begins slowly, but (spoiler alert) like the avalanche which makes its appearance at the end of the play, its gathering power draws you in and holds you fast, even in the knowledge of certain obliteration. And as always in Ibsen’s plays, the endings are not up for sunny reinterpretations. Viewed in this way, the confrontations between an aging artist, Arnold Rubek (Øystein Røger), his young wife Maia (Andrea Bræin Hovig), and his muse, Irene (Ragnhild Margrethe Gudbrandsen) take on a mythic quality as they struggle to decide what is more important. The life of an artist? The work of art itself? Is it worth giving up a chance of family and children to pursue your art? What happens if you become successful, but still feel something lacking in both art and life? What happens if success feels like death? Into this mix of conflicting situations, we can be pretty sure, Ibsen is pouring the accumulated frustrations of his own life as an artist. But there’s always at least one wild card in play in Ibsen’s dramas, and this arrives in the form of a bear hunter named Ulfhejm (James Browne). It’s Ulfhejm who separates the unhappy couple. It’s the crude and brutal hunter who entices Maia away from her husband, and, ironically, gives the artist one last chance to reconnect with his muse, Irene. And it is Ulfhjem who entices them all up the mountainside where revelations and endings come together in surprising, but somehow appropriate ways.
Kjetil Bang-Hansen’s elegant direction is right at home in the Coronet’s beautifully restored interiors and its surprisingly spacious stage. His actors move with assurance around a set design by Mayou Trikerioti that evokes fin de siécle decay —the wreckage of an excessive past spilling out on stage where no one can ignore it any longer. With some deft sound design and music by Peter Gregson, it’s easy to get drawn into a space where resort hotels become remote mountainsides in a subtle change of lights (Amy Mae.) Special mention should also be made of the ease with which the Norwegian actors manage this difficult play in two languages. Listening to a play in a language one doesn’t know is always revealing. In this production of When We Dead Awaken, Norwegian sounds clipped and precise. The lyrical struggles a bit, but then it should. And every so often the unfamiliar becomes familiar again as English words peek through the Norwegian in odd pronounciations, reminding us that modern English retains more than a few Norwegian words. Andrea Bræin Hovig and Øystein Røger establish a palpable sense of tension in their scenes in Norwegian together, which contrast nicely with the scenes in English when Irish actor James Browne is on the stage. The subtitles, when necessary, are discreetly projected onto a curtain upstage.
The main disappointment of this production is — you guessed it — the avalanche. But it is hard to argue with Kjetil Bang-Hansen’s pragmatic choice to have the avalanche always on stage, in a sense, in Mayou Trikerioti’s set design. So there is no dramatic movement on stage at the end of the play. The actors simply narrate the final moments. On the whole, this production of When We Dead Awaken shows itself up to the challenge of Ibsen’s last drama. It cleverly avoids falling into the traps that Ibsen has set for the overconfident theatre maker.
Reviewed by Dominica Plummer
Photography by Tristram Kenton
When We Dead Awaken
The Coronet Theatre until 2nd April
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