When We Dead Awaken review – Ibsen’s final play explores an artist’s farewell

Coronet theatre, London
This drama about a sculptor looking back on his life is powerfully staged by the Norwegian Ibsen Company

In the last year of the 19th century, when Henrik Ibsen began a new play, his family – reports Michael Meyer’s biography – feared he would not finish it. Perhaps already weakened by the vascular illness that took hold soon after When We Dead Awaken’s completion, the writer was agitated, rushed.

The play is Ibsen’s shortest and like Shakespeare’s The Tempest, to which it alludes, can be seen as an artist’s farewell. Norwegian sculptor Arnold Rubek returns, with his disappointed younger wife Maia, to a favoured resort hotel where they encounter Irene, model for the marble masterpiece that made Rubek rich and revered, and Ulfhejm, a primally direct bear-hunter, who might have wandered in from Peer Gynt.

That echo is one of multiple textual self-references: Rubek’s sculpture is, like the manuscript in Hedda Gabler, a surrogate child. Elsewhere, a remembered child and a mysterious lady reference Little Eyolf and The Lady from the Sea.

Combining subtitled Norwegian with some scenes in English (representing the distinct dialect of the bear-hunter, powerfully played by James Browne), Kjetel Bang-Hansen’s production for the Norwegian Ibsen Company, a glorious cultural exporter, plays on and around a Beckettian heap of debris designed by Mayou Trikerioti. This encourages the reading that the characters may be dead, revisiting people and scenes in a sort of Groundhog Night.

Although Ibsen couldn’t have known that the 20th century would see him as the second greatest dramatist after Shakespeare, Rubek’s clear sense of his work having been wrong and wasted feels upsetting. The critic Edward Said, in his last book, On Late Style, used When We Dead Awaken to counter the common view that artists at the end achieve serene expertise and reconciliation: Ibsen, a great revolutionary of theatrical realism, seems determined in this play to explode theatrical convention again.

Øystein Røger’s Rubek compellingly walks the tightrope between artistic arrogance and doubt, and captures the sculptor’s monkish wariness towards women, equally wary of Ragnhild Margrethe Gudbrandsen’s earthily dangerous Irene and Andrea Bræin Hovig’s floaty but knowing Maia. The older woman seems to represent art, the younger life, both abused and ruined by Rubek. The actors, delivering often heightened lines with an attractive naturalism, communicate the emotions so clearly that the subtitles often feel like mere underlining.


Mark Lawson

The GuardianTramp

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