Actor Kåre Conradi is the artistic director of the Norwegian Ibsen Company. Conradi has starred in numerous Ibsen productions, and is now starring in a co-production with London’s Print Room at the Coronet of Henrik Ibsen’s classic The Lady from the Sea. We talked to him about what makes The Lady from the Sea special, Ibsen’s relevance in modern times, and doing theatre productions in the UK.
Since Conradi debuted as an actor in 1989, he has played many different roles in theatre and on screen. He is known by many as Orm in Netflix’s Norsemen, but Conradi is also one of Norway’s leading actors on Ibsen. In 2010 he decided to establish a Norwegian Ibsen Company to bring Ibsen’s work to audiences in Norway and abroad. Conradi last appeared at The Print Room in the critically acclaimed production of Little Eyolf, and is now set to play the role of Arnholm in The Lady from the Sea. The Stage writes that the play is a “beautifully conceived bilingual update of Ibsen’s drama about loss and longing.”
The Lady from the Sea is The Norwegian Ibsen Company’s first big production. Can you tell us more about the company and your collaboration with Print Room?
We are very happy to be working with the Print Room and the team there lead by Anda Winters. Anda and I met some years ago when I was looking for a kindred spirit in my pursuit to do more Ibsen over here in the UK, as well as around the world. We almost immediately agreed on making a full production together. I also started discussions with the artistic team at The National Theatre of Norway, where I am based. I suggested we visit London for some days with the production of Ibsen’s Little Eyolf that Pia Tjelta and I were still performing in Oslo. The response for both productions has been tremendous, and especially the joy of now seeing the bilingual take on Ibsen in The Lady from the Sea is received so well.
My idea of creating a Norwegian Ibsen Company came from the inspiration of seeing how Shakespeare Companies like The Royal Shakespeare Company and Shakespeare’s Globe take such good care of the heritage of the world’s greatest playwright. They manage to do this on so many levels from a wide spectre of performances, to working towards youth and education. Henrik Ibsen is the most performed playwright in the world after William Shakespeare and the impact he has all around the world is tremendous. Yet we didn’t have our own Norwegian Ibsen Company, wanting to create even more possibilities and collaborations. I decided in 2012 that I would slowly build one. I started in Edinburgh at the Fringe Festival, playing for just one person in the audience in the beginning. Now for The Lady from the Sea we experience full house and I have a wonderful team of actors, creatives and stage-team with me from Norway.
You have worked on numerous Ibsen productions in the past. Why have you chosen The Lady from the Sea, and what makes this play special?
Firstly, this was a play that both Anda Winters, the director Marit Moum Aune and I loved. It has so many layers of human yearning, longings, strength and weakness, and it is a thrill to explore and present this. Secondly, it is the play’s 130th Anniversary; it opened in Norway and Germany on the 12th of February 1889. I have also recently discovered that the actor that Henrik Ibsen chose to play the role I play, Arnholm, is related to me. The day I discovered that was a wonderful and surreal day. Last, but not least: The play presents an almost natural solution to why our version can be bilingual. Ellida feels estranged to her husband and his children from his first marriage. We made him and the daughters English.
The Lady from the Sea was performed for the first time 130 years ago. What makes the play, and Ibsen’s work in general, relevant in modern times?
Henrik Ibsen said that if you want to get to know me you must read my plays. He searched deep inside and gave so much of himself in every play that he has given us a true gift of human insight. Yes, the language sometimes needs to be tweaked and relationships explored, but my aim with the Ibsen Company is to be as true as possible to Ibsen’s intentions and stories. He has this rare gift of seeing us as we are, with all our strengths and weaknesses, and with all our shortcomings. He was able to see us as human beings, more than we sometimes manage to see ourselves, or want to see. He reveals all the secrets we hide from each other, and more importantly: from ourselves. This makes the essence of all his plays so incredibly relevant. His plays are about longing, loss, lust and all that makes us human.
You and the rest of the team were recently rehearsing in Ibsen’s apartment in Oslo. How did it inspire the creative process?
We feel it somehow brought us all a tad closer to Ibsen. And it gave us a good focus. The apartment is an apartment that I rediscovered and have engaged myself in. And I have been fortunate enough to be able to rent and use the apartment on different occasions. This is the flat where Ibsen wrote Little Eyolf and The Master Builder. His small study was also used as a studio for most of the famous portraits of him. Ibsen sat there modelling for many of the famous paintings we know of him, and he even modelled for the famous statue of him outside The National Theatre of Norway. The Norwegian Ibsen Company want to work so this flat is not forgotten, and we are trying to find a way to rent it for good. It has an incredible history. And just around the corner lies the Ibsen Museum where Ibsen’s last flat is intact and restored. An actor called Knut Wigert begun that particular process many years ago and I cannot see why we shouldn’t manage to do the same with the other flat.
As an example: In Stratford the audience rush to an empty spot “New Place” where Shakespeare’s house once was. We still have Ibsen’s flat and we need to keep it. It’s on the foundation of our history that the future is built, Ibsen once wrote.
The play features both English and Norwegian language, with both British and Norwegian actors. How is it working on a British and Norwegian co-production like this?
The actors from both countries have embraced this without many questions, and it feels inspiring on both sides they say. Our dramaturg Mari Kjeldstadli and our director Marit Moum Aune have both done a wonderful job in selecting the excerpts so that they seem natural. The translation is very good too.
Naturally, it takes effort for the English actors to learn the lines in Norwegian and to know the other actors’ lines well so they can react as if they understand everything. But it also adds a different concentration and presence. Both the wonderful actors and the audience from the UK have expressed that they like having Ibsen’s original words presented to them throughout the play.
In extension to this: How does this influence how the characters interplay? What does the different languages add to the play?
We have worked on translating even more during rehearsals, to make all scenes as clear as possible. The translation by May Brit Akerli was very good and during rehearsals we also tweaked more for precision. It gives us an extra round of working with the text compared to in other productions where one works in one language, and it forces us all to know exactly what we mean when on stage. This search for truth is something that Marit Moum Aune, our director, also focuses on in all of her work.
In your experience, what has it been like doing theatre productions in the UK?
I love working here. I also always love to be inspired by actors and creatives from all over the world. The respect in the UK for the written word and the theatre’s base in pure storytelling is inspiring. I truly enjoy being in performances where a director decides to twist everything around, take away text and add completely new layers. As a way to move art and ourselves forward this is not just enjoyable, but very important and vital. On the other hand, I also have a niece who at the age of twenty-three has never seen a play by Ibsen told through the story that Ibsen originally wrote. I therefore also feel there is a responsibility to tell these originals with conviction.
This too, I find to be both brave and modern in 2019. In general, I believe that as Norwegians we can take the chance to be even more brave and proud of Henrik Ibsen and his legacy. The idea of The Norwegian Ibsen Company is to explore more, together with creative forces and Ibsen enthusiasts from all over the world.
Kåre Conradi and The Norwegian Ibsen Company’s collaboration with Print Room The Lady from the Sea will play at Print Room at the Coronet from 8 February to 9 March 2019.
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.”
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.