Back in 1982, when writer Colin Welland was picking up an Oscar for his screenplay for Chariots of Fire he rather foolishly declared “the British are coming” in his acceptance speech.
Thirty years on and thankfully no one from Norway is indulging in a similar bout of misguided hubris, but whisper it quietly: London’s cultural summer is displaying a remarkably Norwegian hue.
Hot on the heels of the captivating and comprehensive Edvard Munch retrospective, The Modern Eye, at the Tate Modern, two Henrik Ibsen plays are preparing to take the capital’s Theatreland by storm. First up is the Young Vic’s production of one of Ibsen’s most fêted, and controversial, works, A Doll’s House.
This is followed by a play at the other end of the colourful dramatist’s canon, the lesser-known St John’s Night, which makes its debut at the Jermyn Street Theatre on July 10. This staging is significant for two reasons: one of Ibsen’s earliest works, it sank without trace when it was first performed in 1853, and because it was never collated alongside his more notable later plays it was regarded as mythical in some quarters. This is the first time the play will be performed in the UK.
Moreover, it’s noteworthy because it allows us a different glimpse of the great playwright. Although regarded as one of the founding fathers of modern theatre and, in the eyes of purists, right up there with the likes of Shakespeare, Samuel Beckett, George Bernard Shaw, Tennessee Williams and others, Ibsen is seen as something of a serious and sombre writer.
If St John’s Night doesn’t rebuff this contention as such, it does shine an alternative light on Ibsen’s oeuvre. The play is a comedic evisceration of nationalism (in this case Norwegian nationalism), and while displaying many traits that theatregoers have come to associate with Ibsen – a sharp and wicked tongue, a finely tuned and impassioned critical eye – it is definitely, even defiantly, more light-hearted than many of his more celebrated works.
Max Barton, assistant director of St John’s Night, concurs: “It’s a surprise from Ibsen. Most people haven’t heard of it – I certainly hadn’t until relatively recently – and it is somewhat out of character. However, at its heart it contains many of the ideas and styles we can find in Ibsen’s later works, when, of course, he became a giant in the theatre.”
For such a recognised figure in theatre, however, it is rare for two of Ibsen’s productions to be running concurrently. And while Barton states there have been no conversations between Jermyn Street Theatre and the Young Vic, believing the timing of the two plays to be coincidental, he recognises there is something “in the ether” when it comes to Ibsen.
“His plays have a current edge,” he says. “What with the Olympics, the Jubilee and the crisis in the Eurozone, the issue of nationalism is at the forefront of a lot of people’s minds. St John’s Night addresses these issues. It explores those notions of thinking your country is best.”
The Young Vic’s artistic director David Lan agrees with Barton that Ibsen was eerily prophetic in much of his writing. A Doll’s House might have been penned over 130 years ago, but much of its narrative remains pertinent.
“It’s a play about marriage,” explains Lan. “It’s about the way we behave within a marriage and has profound things to say about the institution itself. It’s an institution we’re questioning and interrogating more than ever now.”
Lan continues: “The play talks vividly about guilt, shame, justice, self-belief and standing up for yourself: these are themes that will be relevant to all people, always. Ibsen cared fundamentally about the roles we create for ourselves in society: as men and women, as husbands and wives, as humans. I think A Doll’s House makes as powerful a statement about us as people now as it did when it premiered.”
It goes without saying that The Young Vic’s presentation is the more high profile of the two plays, starring heavyweight thespians Hattie Morahan (star of the BBC’s acclaimed 2008 production of Sense and Sensibility) and Dominic Rowan (Law & Order UK).
However, the UK premiere of Ibsen’s earliest work should also lead to a re-evaluation of the writer.
Renowned as the father of prose drama, many expect lashings of Nordic gloom when confronted with one of his works. The astute St John’s Night displays a refreshingly wanton comedic edge.
Either way, the next few weeks will see a timely reminder of Ibsen’s enduring and dynamic talents.