Posts Tagged ‘Ibsen’

Cogito: John Branch

November 20, 2013


 JB photo-painting by RC 2



New Tricks for an Old Dog

One evening in early November, the BAM Harvey Theater resounded to an electric guitar, a few American pop-rock songs including Bowie’s “Changes,” the splat of paint-filled balloons hurled against the walls of the set, and the words of an incendiary political text published recently in France. For a while, voices from the audience were heard as well, challenging one of the characters on stage or supporting another. There was even a trained dog, though she wasn’t the one with the new tricks. It may sound like a crazy anarchist circus or even a rally for the Occupy movement—and in a way it works as either or both. But the occasion was a performance by Berlin’s Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz of a 131-year-old play by Henrik Ibsen: An Enemy of the People.

ibsenIbsen’s original tells of a doctor in a spa town, Thomas Stockmann, who discovers a pollution problem with the water supply feeding the baths. Determined to announce this as a prelude to getting it cleaned up, Stockmann finds and then loses backing in one quarter after another—from the mayor to the opposition press—and he ends as a radical idealist, refusing to compromise with anyone, dismissing virtually the entire town as corrupt enemies of truth. Apart from an ironic shadow in the final moment, Ibsen’s Enemy of the People shows the playwright at his most intemperate. (He wrote it as a heated response to the hostile reception of Ghosts.)

Having been thoroughly renovated by company dramaturg Florian Borchmeyer (credited with preparing this new version) and the Schaubuhne’s artistic director ostermeierThomas Ostermeier, the play is now performed in modern dress, is garlanded with comic bits, and feels quite contemporary. The doctor, his wife, and one of their newspaper friends launch into a band rehearsal at one point, which the wife soon interrupts for a spat with Stockmann; a couple of laptops appear in another scene. The play now hits a different target, too. Instead of attacking conventional morality, it decries the ills of modern democratic capitalism.

Florian_Borchmeyer_u_ber_Jodorowsky_101675966_thumbnailBorchmeyer hasn’t merely modernized Ibsen’s text; he has rewritten much of it, eliminating minor characters and a lot of secondary discussion, and even rejiggered the plot. Anyone who knows the original—which is indeed something of a dog—will be repeatedly surprised by the Schaubühne’s version, and yet in retrospect it’s much the same, simply displaying some new and pretty stunning tricks. (The company is no longer in in the U.S., but for anyone yet to see it in another country, the rest of my text contains spoilers. It will be performed in five more cities on the company’s current international tour.)

Ibsen’s Stockmann convenes a public meeting to reveal his discovery but is pretty quickly voted off his own stage; after some further maneuvering, the play ends with his ringing declaration that “The strongest man in the world is the man who stands alone.” He’s surrounded by his family at the time, thus hardly alone—the ironic shadow I mentioned. The new Stockmann never says anything of the kind, and at his meeting he speaks at length, moving from a bit of Ibsen’s text to a series of sometimes abstract, sometimes trenchant remarks that Borchmeyer has borrowed from The Coming Insurrection, published in France in 2007. The line that most struck home when I attended was “The economy is not in crisis; the economy is the crisis.” Soon after we hear that, suddenly and very smoothly, another surprise develops: the meeting is thrown open to comments and questions from the audience, with prompts and replies, even provocations, from the characters—all in English, whereas the play itself is presented in German with English supertitles.

The speech and the discussion are potent moments, wvolksfeind02hile they last, though they raised a suspicion for me: this isn’t the same as being given a greater voice in the affairs of the land. But the evening isn’t over yet. The scripted play resumes its course and shows us two things. One, in the current order of things, we, along with the new Stockmann, will face endless temptation, like Jesus in the desert.  Two, our resistance may call for consultative, group action. Interpretations will vary, but the latter is how I read the final moments. There, we see Stockmann weighing the next move with his wife, whereas he had always made decisions on his own before.

Stefan Stern plays Stockmann with the air of a man who keeps getting knocked down and keeps getting back up. He’s not the kind of guy who does well in a fight—he’s reckless, not very observant, and even trips over himself at one point—but he refuses to stay down and is somehow invigorated by opposition. The rest of the seven-person cast is equally excellent. There are no star turns here, not even in that long speech. Everything is focused; nothing is overstated. This is vital and purposeful theater;  the Schaubühne’s Enemy of the People is a perfect example of its kind.

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Cogito: John Branch

June 4, 2013


JB photo-painting by RC 2


If You Build It, They Will Come

Yes, The Master Builder is one of Henrik Ibsen’s great plays, but why? The simplest answer may be this: If you see it, you’ll know. A fine production is running at BAM’s harvey theatreHarvey Theater through June 9. Here’s your chance; as this blog always hopes to be able to say, “Don’t miss it.”

No doubt it helps to have a sensibility that’s attuned to the kind of music an artist’s late style can produce. Beethoven’s final quartets aren’t for everybody, nor are Henry James’s last novels. It also helps to be prepared.

ibsen1Ibsen’s work can be divided into three phases; the Ibsen that’s most often produced is the middle-period author of realistic prose dramas, running roughly from A Doll’s House (1879) through Hedda Gabler (1890). He had been writing for almost 30 years before Nora slammed the door and continued for nearly 10 after Hedda last took up her father’s pistol. Allowing for Ibsen’s long apprenticeship, one can still wish to see some of the wild poetic dramas of the first period, in which God himself can be heard to thunder (in Brand, 1866). He again unleashed his imagination in his third period, in which harps sing in the air, a folktale-like character lures a child into the sea, and the dead speak. These final plays are attempted now and then, but—maybe because of their skipping relations with objective, external reality—not very often, and even less often with success, it seems. Thus I’ve never seen The Master Builder (1892) before.

master builder setOrdinarily, it’s in this play that the harps sing. That’s what Hilde Wangel heard 10 years ago when she watched Halvard Solness climb daringly high up a ladder to hang a wreath atop a church steeple. Because of that, and because of a careless promise he made to her—she’s a mere child (he thought) and won’t remember—she has sought him out now. She puts herself squarely in the middle of Solness’s unhappy home life, which has suffered from his relentless dedication to work, and the unsettled circumstances at his office, where he fears being supplanted by someone younger.

The past hangs heavy over the present (as had been the case in Ibsen’s plays at least since Ghosts); what has already happened is as much a question, while we watch the play unfold, as what is going to happen. Ibsen had already mastered the drama of triangular conflicts and here uses nearly every possible triangle among the seven characters: among others, Solness and Aline (his wife) and Hilde, as well as Solness and Ragnar (his young assistant) and Knut Brovik (Ragnar’s father, whom Solness had forcibly replaced years ago). The word “conflicts” may be too strong where Hilde is concerned, however. With her girlish enthusiasm and her mix of dreams and physical appeal, she’s like the warm light of the Mediterranean magically let into a dour Scandinavian church; she tantalizes and revitalizes Solness, and she seems to open up everyone else in the play, although for the most part she shows them up as well.

I could discuss the characters and the uncanny elements of the drama at more length than I ought to take here. It may suffice to recall that critic Robert Brustein called The Master Builder “a great cathedral of a play, with dark, mystical strains which boom like the chords of an organ.”

At BAM, the first thing you’ll notice, before the play even begins, is Santo Loquasto’s set design masater builder 3doing its part to foreshadow events by placing some elements at an uneasy tilt. In David Edgar’s translation of the text, Hilde’s reference to harps in the air is gone, and the other “mystical strains” are played down, though the play still rises above ordinary notions of reality. And as always it belongs mainly to Solness and Hilde.

The main accomplishment of Andrei Belgrader’s direction is that it allows the apparent simplicity of their drama to stand clear, in the persons of John Turturro and Wrenn Schmidt. The title character is far less at the mercy of events than some of Turturro’s screen roles have been; in a way, Solness is at the mercy of his own desires instead, and as Turturro plays him you’re both afraid of the character and afraid for him. schmidt turturroAs Hilde, Schmidt seems at first almost impossibly girlish but also too obvious in her come-ons, yet she soon won me over and left me absolutely fascinated. (As I confessed on Twitter, the character intruded on my dreams that night, which says something for Schmidt but even more for Ibsen’s potent creation.)

There’s never any better reason for going to the theater than simply to see what’s there. As I said before, such works as The Master Builder aren’t for everybody, but if you go to BAM it’s quite possible that you’ll feel you’ve witnessed something titanic, even mythic.

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