Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Festive Oslo

Not surprisingly given that Norway furnishes Trafalgar Square's Christmas tree every year,  its capital has a fair share of illuminated firs - no less than seven that I saw outside and within the National Theatre (pictured above, National Opera below the first photo) when I began my Peer Gynt foray for The Arts Desk with a lunchtime performance of Ibsen's flexible epic as adapted by brilliant director Alexander Mørk-Eidem.

I think I've assembled all the details necessary for the big piece, but frustratingly I can't find anything much online about the building or its marvellous collection of portraits beyond the fact that it was the work of Henrik Bull and opened in 1899 with a festive programme which included Ibsen's An Enemy of the People on the first two nights, Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson's Sigurd Jorsalfar on the third. If we know the latter at all, it's through Grieg's heart-of-oak Homage March. So it's odd to see the statues of the two men flanking the building in equal stature. Ibsen's the one we recognise, of course.

The handsome lobby has the fifth tree.

Should have gone round the foyer spaces and staircases during the interval with my notebook, left inside the auditorium. The statue here is of early-ish Ibsen heroine Hjørdis.

Of the actresses featured, I can only tell you that this is Liv Ullmann - I failed to note the artist -

and though I identified a few playwrights and actors, I picture knowingly only a fine portrait of the Master, on loan from the National Gallery I loved so much on my first visit earlier in the year.

Otherwise, all I can do you are people and portraits, the former a very mixed bunch as the matinee was full of school groups, lively and vocal around the performance, extremely attentive during it - as how could they not be, given such a stunning and lively show.

Curiously none of the production pics shows the controversial painting which forms the backdrop for this Peer Gynt's devastating coup, corresponding to the storm for Peer's homecoming in the original. Norwegian-based Vanessa Baird's To Everything There is a Season caused a storm in the wake of the Breivik attacks in the city and on Utøya island, despite the fact that the toppling buildings and falling paper had been painted before it. Debate continues as to whether it should continue to hang in a public space, so all credit to Mørk-Eidem for making it part of his commentary on the point at which Norway could never be the same again. There's a reproduction of part of the original canvas over on the Arts Desk.

 Who knows what Ibsen would have thought of that? I hope he would have welcomed only one of many approaches to his endlessly fascinating myth. This time I got, as originally intended, to the House-Museum, which I've also written about in the Arts Desk piece. Two peripheral pleasures I didn't mention, or expand upon, were the tiles in the gents' loo, including Ibsen's specimens of handwriting,

and another tree or shrub of sorts for the natural ecosystem in Old Ekdahl's loft in The Wild Duck as realised by artist Lucie Noel Thune, who's been a friendly correspondent since my visit.

Only when close up do you realise it's constructed of hundreds of duck eggs. A nice complement to the real wild duck wandering the black glass box of my year's theatrical highlight, Belvoir Sydney's production - another wonderful adaptation - of that great and ambiguous play.

Jüri Reinvere's opera, the premiere of which I saw at the National Opera the following night, makes more explicit reference to the Breivik attacks at the same point as Mørk-Eidem does in his production of the play. Here Peer imagines he takes the Troll King's 'be yourself - and to hell to the rest of the world' to its natural, Breivikian extreme of indiscriminate shooting. The music there is at its most powerful, so I bought it as most of Oslo, apparently less interested in the score than in the situation, has not. I had reservations about some of the work, but I respect Jüri's right to treat it from his own unique perspective. I've met him twice - once through Berlin critic Jan Brachmann, when he came to the local cafe, and a second time after I'd seen the play - informally, not for an interview, though it was helpful to have his perspective in mind.

Then it was off to a splendid theatrical happening rivalling the play Peer Gynt, all thanks to this intriguing screen I saw as I was passing the Norwegian Theatre.

The result was even more amazing than I'd expected, a Hamlet like no other inhabiting a unique world - more about it over on the Arts Desk piece.

There remained only the event for which I'd been invited back to Oslo in the first place. Audience members were invited to a post-show party in the foyer on the first night of the operatic Peer Gynt only to find they had to listen to the speeches without a drink in hand unless anyone had bought one: that's a first for me. Anyway, there was always the tree in the splendid foyer - which I wrote about in my first Arts Desk piece on Oslo - to feast on.

The Thursday of my arrival (at midnight) was one of those crazy excursions I occasionally indulge in. That meant catching a morning train to Birmingham for a lunchtime pre-performance talk for the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra before Andris Nelson's afternoon concert of Schumann's Piano Concerto with Stephen Hough and Bruckner's Seventh Symphony, the main thrust of my talk (though I started with Schumann's Rhenish opening as the example of a more usual sort of symphonic start). In a tight schedule, the rehearsal had only just finished when I came on to the concert platform for a brief sound check - and there was Andris discussing a point with CBSO leader Laurence Jackson.

He and Stephen were as friendly as I'd expected from the few words we exchanged. Also had a good chat with my main inviter and now, I hope, friend Richard Bratby who organises the talks; I'll be sorry to see him go early next year but the good thing is that he may be freed up to review CBSO concerts, inter alia, for The Arts Desk. Sadly I couldn't even stay for the first half of the concert as I'd left my passport at home, which in the end meant only a brief excursion before going on to Gatwick for the Oslo flight.. I'd like to have spent longer in Birmingham not only for that but also because the Christmas Fairl there seemed so jolly.

All I had time for was a ridiculously large plate of fried onion flower which caught surprised comments as I stood dipping it in garlic mayonnaise.

Then off to the train, and on to two and a half days in Oslo which were as gloomy as the weather in Birmingham, and of course much colder, with no more than a dusting of the snow which had made the first visit such fun. I can at least say I've seen the sun in that city, if only on rising at 9.30am - as I know from Iceland in January, it's the mornings which remain dark for so long - in my hotel room on the 32nd floor, looking east to the hills

and south to the Opera House and the harbour.

Anyway, we're sitting tight for once over Christmas itself, maybe off for a bit in the New Year. Happy holidays to all, with a final tree, or rather shrub, greeting: for the first time ever, camellia Debbie in the back yard has flowered unseasonably early, allowing me to display it alongside a couple of our Indian hand-painted Santas. An e-card on the same theme will be reaching those whose addresses I've not been able to track down.


Susan Scheid said...

David: This is such a marvelous post. From scaling the heights of beautiful things and places to the tiles in the gents’ loo and, UK-side, that humongous plate of fried onion flower! What a grand, elegant theater Oslo’s National Theater is. And the duck-egg structure is astonishing, not least for the thought of trying to create it while keeping the eggs in tact. I look forward now to going over and reading your TAD pieces, though last, not least, how nice that the camellia bloomed for you now, and so for us, too. A happy Christmas to you both!

Susan Scheid said...

Me again (BTW, I seem to have missed your previous post what with the little social whirl we’ve been having this week—with more to come), but I did enjoy the juxtaposition of RuPaul and Cinderella. Perhaps it was those marvelous OTT Cinderella costumes, but a post of what might have been quite disparate elements ended up seeming all of a piece.)

But now back to this post (and the TAD review, which makes abundantly apparent how much it’s possible to take from a theatrical performance that’s not in a language one knows). The Baird painting is particularly striking, and I can only imagine the power of its impact within the play. In looking up its backstory, I was struck with this comment in a description: “It was therefore quite a paradox that this passionate discussion concerned a painting that very few people had actually seen.” This brings to mind, once again, Alice Goodman’s comment about Klinghoffer that we “should be able to acknowledge also the darkness that is in each of us. So, in other words, there is nothing that is human that should be foreign to us. That’s one of the things that art exists to express.”

David said...

One of the many lovely things about the Nationalteatret, Sue, is that it's not too big - 700-seater main auditorium - and although it was similar in layout to the Stockholm Opera, it felt both much lighter and more welcoming. Much structural work remains to be done, though.

The duck eggs were hollow, I hasten to add, with wires going through them. Glad you admired the construction, lodged in spacious rooms above the Ibsen flat: nice Lucie will be pleased.

Glad you noted the drag post: that you did so here means it remains the only post of recent history to have been totally ignored, not that I mind. Curious, though, to know if most folk shudder at the subject still. Some of the RpDR costumes are just as outlandish - and skilful.

Isn't it the same with most such controversies, from The Satanic Verses to Klinghoffer and of course before and after, that the fiercest protesters haven't seen, read or listened to the works, though in each case it has been possible to do so. They say they don't want to know them, either, but there the case collapses and, however destructive, the would-be destroyers haven't a leg to stand on.

I like Baird's work aesthetically, which shouldn't be the only criterion but is probably the most important one.

Yes, let's explore everything, but not expect answers - that's never the point of great art.

Blissful Hudson valley hols to you both, too, if that's where you are. Hope to see you again here or there in 2015.

David Damant said...

Did Alice Goodman acknowledge her source?

Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto

Except for "puto " ( esteem, value) this is clear.....and from Terence ( died circa 159 BC )

As regards Drag, I did not shudder, but could think of nothing to say

Susan Scheid said...

Oh, yes, I assumed the eggs were hollow. It's an amazing construction, as your near and far photograph perspectives demonstrate so well for us who haven't seen it "live." On the Baird, yes, the work itself attracted me first and is the most important thing.

Your words, "Yes, let's explore everything, but not expect answers - that's never the point of great art" are succinct and absolutely right.

Yes, I raise a toast to another chance to meet, whether here or there, in 2015.

David said...

Sir David, I was going to quote the Latin but wasn't sure I'd get it absolutely right, and was too lazy to look it up, so thank you.

Indeed, no point on commenting just for the sake of it. I hope we're not like those endless circles of folk whose message is 'if you look at my blog and say "great post", I'll do the same for yours'. Though when IS your blog getting off the ground?

Sue, I was trying to think where I read that said by an artist and much better than the way I put it. Maybe it'll come to me. Swamped by too many wonderful thoughts and need seasonal digestion, I'm realising. End of term fatigue is finally hitting.

David Damant said...

It is important, when eating duck eggs, to buy eggs laid by ducks who swim. So often it is stated with pride that "they are not allowed near water". Why bother in that case? Gastronomy does not rule,I fear

Susan Scheid said...

David D: Goodman was speaking on a radio program when she said it, so not footnoted, though I suspect Goodman would have assumed, and reasonably so, that the phrase's origins were well known. (Of course, in my case, that's not so. I have one scrap of Latin, "res ipsa loquitur," a phrase that, as it happens, served the few intrepid women in my law school class very well, particularly for protesting the prevalent less-than-enlightened attitudes of professors and male students at the time.)