When We Dead Awaken

Photo: Coronet Theatre

When We Dead Awaken by Henrik Ibsen – The Coronet Theatre, London

Written for Plays International

Jonathan Kent opened his tenure as Artistic Director of the Almeida Theatre with a production of Henrik Ibsen’s final play, ‘When We Dead Awaken’. When, years later, he was asked for his advice to young directors he supposedly said “Don’t start with ‘When We Dead Awaken’”. Kent’s production was well-received and his time at the Almeida a triumph, but the play is famously difficult. If anyone can get to grips with its strange combination of symbolism and despair, it is surely The Norwegian Ibsen Company. Previously seen at the Coronet Theatre with strong versions of ‘Little Eyolf’ and ‘The Lady from the Sea’, they return with a production directed by Kjetil Bang-Hansen. If the play remains difficult to love, it is hard to imagine a more powerful, well-produced account of its strengths and weaknesses.

The set, designed by Mayou Trikerioti, extends the abandoned 19th century music hall atmosphere of the Coronet onto the stage itself. Peeling paintwork on the balconies give way to a derelict stage, floorboards torn up, dominated by a pile of junk heaped into front of a painted proscenium arch. These are the remnants of an abandoned theatre, where the audience has departed for the last time. It neatly sums up the ruined atmosphere of Ibsen’s final work, which seems to be a complete renunciation of his artistic achievements. It is an astonishing play in many ways, but not all of them are good. Ibsen was apparently dissatisfied with what we now regard as his great works – plays such as ‘Little Eyolf’ and ‘The Master Builder’ that he felt said nothing new. The central character of ‘When We Dead Awaken’ is the aging sculptor Arnold Rubek, his greatest work behind him, also condemned to what he regards as ‘hack work’. His young wife Maia can no longer connect with him and, when he encounters his former model Irene, who posed for his greatest work, he follows her where she leads. His final journey with her to the top of the mountain is heavy with symbolism – Lohengrin, boats that run ashore, the ‘murder’ of children, resurrection, light, darkness, seagulls, swans, and a stream that erupts, startlingly, from the set.  

The cast, who perform mostly in Norwegian with subtitles, with some scenes in English, inhabit the unreal world of the play completely. Øystein Røger, as Rubek, has natural authority which conceals a complete collapse in his confidence or sense of self. He has returned to his Norwegian home town, against his better judgement, to look for meaning in his life. Maia, played by Andrea Bræin Hovig with frustrated energy, has given up hope that her husband will take her, as he promised, to the top of the mountain to see the glories of the whole world. The supposed settings – a country hotel and a mountain retreat – seem like painful fantasies and, when other figures appear, they appear to have been conjured from the troubled minds of Rubek and Maia. First Ulfheim (James Browne), a bear hunter, captivates Maia and takes her away to show her something exciting (apparently his dogs, feeding). He later offers to tie her up with their leashes. Then Rubek recognises Irene von Satow, his muse and saviour/nemesis, played by Ragnhild Margrethe Gudbrandsen. She glides into the picture, accompanied by a nun, both real and spectral, and leads Rubek to the top of the mountain, up a path that Maia and Ulfheim find much too dangerous. What happens next is not entirely clear, and Ibsen was apparently unsure how to end the play, but both Rubek and Maia are set free in contrasting ways.

There are a number of problems with ‘When We Dead Awaken’. In abandoning the realism that proved so effective in plays such as ‘Little Eyolf’ when combined with elements of the supernatural, it seems self-indulgent. The dreamlike setting makes it hard to take events seriously but, while it could perhaps be said that Ibsen is mocking his status as a great artist, the play contains little in the way of humour. Rubek, unlike the characters for whom Ibsen is famous, seems a cliché – a tortured, self-absorbed artist who treats others, both Maia and Irene, abominably. Our sympathies for Rubek are rapidly lost as he retreats inside his own self-pity, and it is hard for us to care much about his redemption. Meanwhile, it is disturbing to see how Ibsen, at last writing about what he really felt, had nothing left to say. The darkness that overwhelms him is like an onstage breakdown, distressing to watch and a harsh coda to a life that, more than a century later, seems a triumph.

However, despite the play’s inherent strangeness, the Norwegian Ibsen Company offers a rare and valuable opportunity to see ‘When We Dead Awaken’. The confidence of the performers and the memorable staging, not to mention the alluring sound of Norwegian spoken on stage, make this an evening of high quality theatre for more than just Ibsen completists. The Coronet continues to play an important role in the London theatre scene, hosting European companies who would not otherwise be seen in the UK, and widening our cultural horizons in ways that we should not take for granted. 

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