Recording Hedda Programme Note: Ibsen’s playground

By Kaja Bjørntvedt and Terje Tveit

London, August 2013

What draws Norwegian audiences back to see yet another Nora, Dr Stockmann or Peer Gynt, is not the familiar text but a new production. What are they going to make of it this time?

Programme notes won’t placate the critical viewer and may even provoke or be the catalyst to opposing views. Yet the very name given to this production, Recording Hedda, beggars the question: What is this? Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler? A meditation on Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler? A musical? An altogether new piece? The simple answer is: none of the above. Brought together by chance and our nationality, the two of us met for a coffee outside the Royal Festival Hall two years ago, without a thought of working together. We immediately found common ground in each other’s creative vision; and almost by default turned to our own national icon, Henrik Ibsen. Our playful collaboration had begun: a composer and a director exchanging ideas and drawing on each other’s imagination.

Ibsen himself was not particularly drawn to music and rarely attended concerts. Despite commissioning Grieg’s incidental music for Peer Gynt, there is very little room for the aural imagination once Ibsen’s characters start chatting. Hence it seemed almost perverse to use music to illuminate character. Hedda’s notorious enigma fascinated both of us; yet stripped of all clichés, we both felt there was something missing to help unravel the many layers of Ibsen’s characters. We chose a different playground for our Hedda: a recording studio – an isolated space where technology communicates, where statements stick, and where soundscapes would bring the unconscious to the fore. By making the play even more claustrophobic, we were able to get under the skin of the characters. Removed from her socio-historical context, Hedda emerged as a modern day actress, whose identity is becoming increasingly invisible, feeding her need for constant re-affirmation from those around that she ‘is’ and that she ‘matters’.

Like Shakespeare, Ibsen’s dramas are action-packed. But even in its original Norwegian, Ibsen’s dialogue is often wooden and overly explanatory. Perhaps this is why Norwegian productions often adapt his original language. What remains, however, is a psychological framework with which the characters act and react by truthful logic, no matter when or where their story takes place. Thus, like Shakespeare, Ibsen has managed to speak to his audience down the ages. With this in mind, perhaps it is possible to understand Ba Clemetsen, festival director of the International Ibsen Festival at the Norwegian National Theatre, when she says:

“At our theatre, Ibsen’s text goes out and the production is invited in.”

Perhaps Clemetsen’s statement is inevitable; how else would she fill her Oslo theatre, a city of five hundred thousand people? Her audiences know their Ibsen, and it is not the old play, which draws them back, but a fresh take and a new Ibsen interpretation. Like Shakespeare, Ibsen has been let loose and become a free for all – a playground for widely different ideas and stage interpretations. Ibsen’s work is not a historical artifact trapped in a cage of fixed ideas. He is there to be played with, to provoke and to prove his relevance – again and again. Like Shakespeare, Ibsen’s work is generous, playful and an everlasting inspiration to any creative artist working on his material.

Kaja Bjørntvedt and Terje Tveit
London, August 2013