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When We Dead Awaken at The Coronet, London

When We Dead Awaken, Henrik Ibsen’s last play, is a drama that questions the folly we human beings make of the gift of life. First performed at the Haymarket Theatre in London in 1899, it crosses the boundaries of two centuries to captivate London audiences once again. Currently at The Coronet in London, it is reimagined by the Norwegian Ibsen Company and directed by Kjetil Bang-Hansen, a director who considers the play to be Ibsen’s most biographical piece of writing and, from the outset, there is much evidence to support his assumption.

Ragnhild Margrethe Gudbrandsen (Irene von Satow) in When We Dead Awaken by Henrik Ibsen @ Coronet Theatre. Directed by Kjetil Bang-Hansen. Produced by The Coronet Theatre & The Norwegian Ibsen Company. (Opening 01-03-2022) ©Tristram Kenton
Ragnhild Margrethe Gudbrandsen (Irene von Satow) in When We Dead Awaken. ©Tristram Kenton

As the audience arrives, it is confronted with a tower-like construction of broken wood planks and assorted rubble that dominate centre stage throughout the production. Designed by Mayou Trikerioti, it is hypnotically lit (Amy Mae) with a visual power that holds many possible narratives – of a hacked-up corpse thrown on a heap for vultures to pick over, of a life carelessly spent, or a representation of the piteous, self-absorbed characters to whom we’re about to be introduced.

The play’s protagonist, Arnold Rubek, (Øystein Røger), is a famed egotistical sculptor, completely self-obsessed and blind to the needs of the people around him. We first meet him and his young wife Maia Rubek (Andrea Braein Hovig) outside a Norwegian spa overlooking the sea.

The couple express their resentments and dissatisfactions with one another but, unlike Arnold, who seems cocooned in a veil of hopelessness and resignation, Maia is a woman who still draws breath from the fire of life. And most obviously so when Ulfhejm, a glib-tongued bear hunter (James Browne) arouses her curiosity. Within minutes Maia goes off with him, leaving Arnold alone with a mysterious woman who jars Arnold’s memory. He soon realises she is Irene (Ragnhild Margrethe Gudbrandsen) the model who posed for his marble masterpiece, The Day of Resurrection.

And so we are introduced to Ulfhejm and Irene who serve not only as catalysts in the lives of both Maia and Arnold Rubek, but to form a quartet of characters who seek the impossible – that is to demand what the other does not have to give.

Surprisingly, it is the feisty repartee between artist-model Irene and famous sculptor Arnold that gives a lie to their continual moaning about being already dead. This is especially true when Irene chastises Arnold for her bleak existence, blames him for metaphorically ending her life and bemoans the completion of the marble sculpture, while his thoughts are on this same sculpture but with a selfish perspective. He recalls how he’d relegated Irene’s figure from the foreground to the background of The Day of Resurrection, in effect a figure of lesser importance in his marble masterpiece.

But through Arnold’s questionable protestations of love for Irene, and Maia’s quest for freedom in wild-man Ulfhejm, Ibsen’s own philosophy on life, its cruel disappointments and the folly of demanding fulfillment from another, burst through the narrative of the play. I was certainly aware that he’d become a fifth character, confirming Director Bang-Hansen’s claim that this complex drama is Ibsen’s most biographical piece of writing.

When We Dead Awaken is performed mostly in Norwegian, with subtitles that regrettably disappear before they are completely read, thereby creating gaps in Ibsen’s exquisite dialogue. It’s not an easy problem to rectify as the subtitles are timed to keep up with each character’s rapid speech, but the thrill of hearing the play in Ibsen’s mother tongue outweighs the disadvantages of translation.

So, does When We Dead Awaken still stand as a powerful meditation on the folly of existence, and the deadening effect of human relationships, or is it irrelevant in a 21st-century world afflicted with endless pandemics and the looming threat of nuclear war? If you’re an avid Ibsen fan, then this Norwegian production of When We Dead Awaken does its job beautifully.

4 stars

Review by Loretta Monaco

It is rare that anyone gets the chance to rediscover a lost love.

In the depths of a winter Rubek, once a celebrated sculptor, returns to Norway with his estranged young wife Maia – only to encounter, by chance, his great lost love and muse Irene. Is this their opportunity to return to a world where there is meaning, hope and happiness – to awaken from the dead?

The production is directed by eminent director Kjetil Bang-Hansen, in his first production in the UK. It will have a Norwegian/British cast, and be performed in a mixture of Norwegian and English with surtitles. The production will tour Norway after its UK Premiere – The Coronet Theatre’s first international tour.

This is the third collaboration between NIC and The Coronet Theatre in Notting Hill, and stars Norwegian actors Ragnhild Gudbrandsen, Andrea Bræin Hovig and Øystein Røgeran, and English actor James Browne.

The Coronet Theatre
Dates and Times: Thu 24 Feb – Sat 02 Apr 7:30pm

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