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Two Ibsen plays at Théâtre National de la Colline

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Text: Matthew Spellberg Photo: Elisabeth Carecchio

What secrets lurk behind the prim facades of Parisian apartment buildings?  An outsider is hard-pressed to know. Their massive wooden doors are shut tight like pursed lips, their shutters drawn closed in a gesture of perpetual discretion.  But their silence speaks volumes, and their outward respectability seems to trumpet hidden scandal. Walking along the streets at night, a passerby can’t help but look up at the faintly illuminated windows of one of these cut-stone palaces and wonder who’s having an affair with which servant, and in which closet the skeletons are hidden.

For those who want to have a look inside this discrete world without risking a charge of breaking and entering, a cycle of two plays by Henrik Ibsen at Théâtre de la Colline offers a good point of departure.  Director Stéphane Braunschweig has taken two masterworks of Scandinavian angst – "Rosmersholm" and "A Doll’s House" – and set them in what resembles a sinister upper-class Parisian apartment. His characters live in a birdcage of gray walls, cream-colored duvet covers and white floor-to-ceiling bookshelves – a world where families might disintegrate or be ruined, but no one would even think about spilling a glass of red wine on the spotless couch.  A simple wooden table here or a single white chair there completes Braunschweig’s caricature of every posh living room this side of the Faubourg Saint-Honoré: his aesthetic is one of sparse elegance and French froideur, occasionally enlivened by a little Christmas tree or a few flower vases (full of all-white flowers, naturally).  The actors, meanwhile, all look like they’d be perfectly at home ordering a 6-euro espresso at a café in the 8th arrondissement. The men wear black suits with chic lapels and loose shirts, the women are in understated capris and short pea coats.  Hairdos are artfully disheveled all around.

The setting is very tasteful, and the drama, too - for better and for worse.  The critique of the haute bourgeosie’s white walls and white-washing morality is pointed, but something is lost in translation.   Norwegian torment is diluted into French ennui, the struggle between Puritanism and individual rebellion turns into a duel between snobbery and dissatisfaction.  There are some provocative moments when the actors break out of the stiffness around them and embrace Ibsen’s violent energy, but on the whole the performances feel de-fanged, too cool to convey the rawness of these brilliant plays.

In the end, Braunschweig’s staging gives one the impression that those fancy Haussmannian apartment buildings aren’t hiding that much more than the run-of-the-mill problems of privilege - either that, or he’s just as complicit in the cover-up as the buildings themselves, throwing us off the scent with his cold staging.  Perhaps breaking and entering is the only way to go, after all.  Or renting one of those elegant off-white apartments for yourself.  Remember to request one with skeletons included.

You can see "Rosmersholm" and "A Doll’s House" at Théâtre de la Colline,  from Tuesday to Sunday until January 16th. There will be two English-subtitled performances of "A Doll's House" on Thursday, December 3rd at 8:30 pm and on Tuesday, December 15th at 7:30pm. An program in English will be available on the night of performance. For reservations contact Ninon Leclère at +33 (0)1 44 62 52 10.

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Bill Y

We have established that more than one writer wrote Ibsen's plays, and
will reveal our data more completely in the book. However, as can be
seen clearly from the style of language Ibsen used, one of the writers
(called "Ibsen 4" in the study) is clearly speaks danish fluently.
And, we believe there is a case that Ibsen 4 was the dramaturg for the
group, engineering the plots and mechanics of the plays. To reveal one
exciting finding of the study, it is clear that the cabal of
playwrights who actually wrote so-called Ibsen's works were women.
certainly, any reasonable person will not find it odd that a woman in
that oppressed day and age would both write "Hedda Gabler" and be
unable to publish it because of the repression of her gender.

Bill Y

As a young man, Ibsen bought Peer Gynt from a starving poet and set
himself up as a pretender to being a playwright. Then, in Germany, he
was killed in a bar fight, and a group of young German writers wrote
his plays for a while as a joke, eventually hiring an out-of-work
actor to impersonate him. My book will decode all of the jokes the
playwrights wrote into the plays in code, though anyone can tell Peer
Gynt was written by a different author than the one who wrote Hedda
Gabler. Further stylistic analysis, date comparisons and research will
be provided. See the upcoming TV special.

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