Norwegian Arts meets Kåre Conradi
Henrik Ibsens play Little Eyolf from 1894 is to premiere in the UK in Norwegian at the Print Room at the Coronet in Notting Hill. We talked to Norwegian actor Kåre Conradi on this special premiere and his newly established Ibsen Company, heading out to tour the world with Ibsen’s immortal plays.
First of all, what, from your point of view, makes Ibsen’s plays special?
“Ibsen wrote his last play in 1899, but his plays still speak to us as people of 2018. He sees us with all our strengths, faults and shortcomings. He sees when we lie to each other, and especially to ourselves. When we do what we do in life, we don’t always acknowledge why. Ibsen’s men and women have been lived through before they were written down on paper. And if it’s done well on stage the audience can recognize their own life, and relate to what’s happening. This makes him current, always.”
You have become one of Norway’s leading actors on Ibsen. How did it all start, and what kind of relation do you have to Henrik Ibsen’s work today?
“I started out when I was 15 at a drama school for children and youth. The artistic director, Elisabeth Gording was a classical actress at The National Theatre of Norway. Her students started early on with commedia dell’arte, ancient Rome via Shakespeare and Moliere, to Ibsen and writers of today. She made me see how the classical theatre is the foundation for all our work in the theatre. No matter how modern you create a work of art, you need to know what you are modernizing. I’ve played several Ibsen characters, and I’m still amazed by his knowledge of the human mind. It makes me want to explore more. Working with people who feel the same way, and often know much more than I do is one of my greatest joys.”
You have recently established the Norwegian Ibsen Company – one could perhaps call it the Norwegian answer to the Royal Shakespeare Company. Can you tell us about your vision for the company?
“By creating a Norwegian Ibsen Company I wish to make us more proud of Ibsen and his work. I believe having ‘grown up with Ibsen’ should be a strength we should acknowledge even more. I was quoted recently on saying that Ibsen is the New oil. He is the most performed dramatist in the world after Shakespeare. When you come to England to experience Shakespeare on stage you know where to go, and who to turn to. You have various professional options. I want to make a bilingual theatre company based in Norway, but one that tours and produce continuously. I wish to see a dedicated Norwegian Ibsen Company.”
How is it to perform a play in Norwegian before a foreign audience, and what do you think the British audience can gain from this?
“Little Eyolf is an honour to be a part of. The actors, lead by the wonderful Pia Tjelta. The director, Sofia Jupither. Dramatist Mari Kjeldstadli, and everyone involved are all very proud of its long run, and sold-out performances. We have worked hard to show what lies beneath every word. The reviews have been great. Performing it in Norwegian will hopefully bring the audience more close to Ibsen. He was universal in spirit, but also said once that ”any man who wishes to understand me fully must know Norway”.”
The Norwegian Ibsen Company has started collaborating with The Print Room at the Coronet in London, and Little Eyolf will be the first Production. What’s next, and why is the kind of international Collaboration so important?
“I’m very happy that the National Theatre of Norway and the International Foundation have made it possible to be here. When I met with Anda Winters at Print Room for the first time, we spoke about the company and Ibsen. And how we could make something together. We’re discussing the possibility of a co-production with British and Norwegian actors. I’ve always been inspired by the British theatre, and it’s a pleasure to work with British artists. We have so much to offer each other, and hopefully as a result – even more to offer the audience.”
What is special about The Print Room – is there anything specific about the venue that makes it a great Place to show Little Eyolf?
“It has such a wonderful rustic quality. It’s a beautiful old theatre, with its cracks and worn surfaces. And secrets. Just like any Ibsen plot. It’a a grand theatre for big thoughts. Our set designer Erlend Birkeland has rebuilt the set to fit the stage, as it’s a bit smaller than the stage at the National Theatre. I believe that as an audience at the Coronet you have an awareness of being in a historical space. The changes made by Anda and her lovely team make you take in the theatre even more. This is nice, as a subtle comment on Ibsen’s play. He didn’t write to be read, he wrote for the theatre.”
Preserving Ibsen’s Legacy
A ten minute read by Camilla Brugrand
British people are from an early age nourished with the immortal words of William Shakespeare. Norwegian forces are now trying to do the same with national hero and playwright Henrik Ibsen by establishing a company to preserve his legacy.
Norwegian actor Kåre Conradi started The Norwegian Ibsen Company three years ago, with the hope of creating a powerhouse of actors that will continue to spread the famous playwright’s heritage both at home and internationally.
“Ibsen was the father of modern drama. He created a new generation of actors who spoke in a more natural manner on stage, and wrote about real social conditions which are still relevant today.”
Conradi has long been an active proponent in spreading Ibsen’s wisdom to other parts of the world. At the end of 2014, he travelled to India to open the first Ibsen Festival in Mumbai together with Bollywood legend, actress Ila Arun.
“It’s a way of finding common ground and come together through culture. Now, Arun and the other people who were involved in making the festival happen want it to become an annual tradition. It was also encouraged by the embassy in Delhi.”
Currently, Conradi is touring Norway as the lead in a Norwegian adaptation of the British drama Dumb Show, to great reviews. Despite being busy, he still finds time to sit down for an interview to discuss his plans for the Ibsen Company.
“What I want is a company that works continuously with Ibsen –a leading company who aims to be innovative and creative.”
Conradi refers to the UK’s Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) and the work The Shakespeare Globe Theatre does in preserving the work of their national playwright.
“It has been my goal for a very long time to establish The Norwegian Ibsen Company. There is still a long way to go, but it is very inspiring and exciting to talk to actors who want to participate in the project. However, everything comes down to funding.”
Marit Mohn has been a significant financial supporter of Conradi’s work with the Ibsen Company. Mohn currently lives in Kingston Upon Thames and has been a board member of Kingston’s famous Rose Theatre since 2012.
“I’m very grateful for the support from Marit. She has been very encouraging and wants to see The Norwegian Ibsen Company thrive. I’m moving slowly with the project because I want to treat it with the utmost respect and care. A lot of talented people are interested in being a part of the company, and I don’t want to step on anyone’s toes. I want this to be a permanent business and not a one-hit wonder. All we need are the financial frames.”
Conradi wants to make the company international, but primarily establish a Norwegian base where anyone who are interested in Ibsen can come and learn more about the playwright and his legacy.
“On a long-term basis I think that we could open an Ibsen house where people can come and learn from actors about Ibsen. It’s also a goal to take Ibsen plays outside the country borders and show the rest of the world what we are good for. We are proud of Ibsen, and it’s something we have a relationship too.”
He believes that people who enjoy the theatre would love to come and see how Nordics do Ibsen and what knowledge they have about the world the talented writer.
“The point is that people in Norway have grown up with Ibsen the same way British people have grown up reading and seeing Shakespeare.”
Classical plays like A Doll’s House, Lady from the Sea and The Wild Duck has been celebrated and on the British island and the Brits doesn’t seem to get tired of the Nordic dramas.
“The content of Ibsen’s plays are something that the English theatre knows how to use very well. They are superb at that type of drama and performance. Managing text that way is something they learned from having Shakespeare as a foundation of reading at school. I don’t know why Ibsen’s plays attract so many Brits, but I reckon it’s primary because it’s real drama, and they may not be as used to him as we are back home.”
Ibsen’s plays attract some of the UK’s most brilliant minds, including Judi Dench and Lesley Manville. In most of Ibsen’s stories you can find active and outspoken female characters – something that appeals to the vast actresses spectre in the UK.
“The greatest stars want to stare in Ibsen plays because it is written in such a good way and has a lot of dramas and intrigue. It’s perhaps some of the best performances actors can aspire to play. In my eyes at least, Ibsen is at the top of the shelf of acting performances. There are very many layers to his dramas.”
Despite the recent love for Ibsen, England wasn’t as welcoming when Ibsen’s work was first introduced in the 1800s. He received a lot of criticism, and many reviewers described his work as typical Nordic: heavy, grey and depressing.
“It’s exactly the way Jon Fosse, a Norwegian author and dramatist, has been received by the UK critics nowadays. They say it’s as grey and sad as it gets.”
Conradi has inhabited many Ibsen characters over the years. Among them is Peer Gynt by Ibsen Theatre under the direction of José Luis Valenzuela, director of the Los Angeles Theatre Centre, Earl Haakonsson in Pretenders at the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen, Stensgaard in The League of Youth at the National Theatre and Falk in Love comedy – a role he received Radioteatrets Blue bird.
“I’m proud to be Norwegian in many ways, but especially because it’s the home country of my favourite playwright. Ibsen has done a lot on an international level when it comes to introducing drama to the world. I’m also proud that I have received the opportunity to act in so many Ibsen plays that I have.”
Already during his study at the Norwegian Theatre College and LAMDA in London, Conradi has a predilection for Ibsen’s work.
“To me, the theatre is a holy place. I like to go into the material as deep as I can and Ibsen gave me the opportunity to do that. He sees people just the way they are, and he has become a somewhat mentor in humans inner life. In a way, he kind of reveals our true intentions and aspirations. I always get the aha-feeling when I’m reading his work – because I find new meanings and deeper context the more layers I get through.”
Ibsen is one of the playwright’s that has managed to stay relevant for over a hundred years. What he writes about during the 1800s could be translated to current situations in today’s society.
“If you can’t do Ibsen on a stage, you know that you only have yourself to blame for it. As an actor, you have to realise that your greatest task is to convey his words as best as you can to the audience. It gives you an enormous reassurance, as an actor to know that the material you are working on is good. Ibsen has his hidden secret and I think it’s exciting to reveal them when reading his texts over and again.”
The Norwegian Ibsen Company has tried its best to stay true to the words written by Ibsen. Only the oldest words have been renewed.
“We haven’t tried to make it modern and hip. The people working together have relied on each other, and we believe that Ibsen’s text shows the way. We have talked about our lives in the process to figure out how to tell the story as humanly as possible. Our goal is for the audience to experience something that occurs then and there.
Five years ago, Conradi started studying the link between Ibsen and Norwegian painter Edvard Munch. The more he read, the more he realised that one of them had a significant impact on the other. However, Munch and Ibsen only met two times in their lifetime.
“Munch’s father used to read Ibsen to him when he was only twelve years old. This created a whole new universe for Munch. At the age of fourteen, Munch drew his first drawing based on an Ibsen play.”
Later, it has been said that between 500 and 600 of Munch’s work as been inspired by Ibsen. Munch recognised himself in much of Ibsen’s work, especially the dark, fighting men who felt shunned by society and felt that they didn’t get acceptance. Therefore, they fought all the time.
“At one of Munch’s art exhibition, Ibsen told him: ‘it’s going to go with you as it did with me. The more friends you get, the more enemies”, Conradi explains before he is rushed back to another rehearsal for his current tour with the Riksteateret (Norway’s National Touring Theatre).