Norwegian drama


Ghosts (trans. Lenkiewicz)

Faber and Faber
Type: Text

Norway, 1881. Mrs. Alving is ecstatic when her son Osvald visits after many years abroad. He has returned to celebrate the heroic memory of his dead father. But within hours of Osvald's homecoming his mother is forced to unearth the past and reveal its terrifying ghosts.

Rebecca Lenkiewicz's version of Henrik Ibsen's Ghosts, or Those Who Return, premiered at the Arcola Theatre, London, in a co-production with ATC in July 2009.


Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Lucy Kirkwood's version of Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler relocates his nineteenth-century heroine to 21st-century Notting Hill. It was first performed at the Gate Theatre, London, on 21 August 2008.

Hedda, still mourning the father she adored, returns from honeymoon with a husband she doesn’t love, to a flat they can’t afford and a pregnancy she doesn’t want. Trapped by her past and terrified by her future, bored by her life but too cowardly to walk away from it, she finds herself caught between three men. Ultimately, something has to give.

The Gate Theatre premiere was directed by Carrie Cracknell and designed by Holly Waddington, with a cast including Cara Horgan as Hedda and Tom Mison as her husband, George.

video Hedda Gabler (BBC film adaptation)

BBC Video
Type: Video

Ibsen's classic story of a woman who sets out to destroy her husband and his smug, middle-class attitudes, but instead finds herself having to make a grave decision. This television production is related to the 1991 Abbey Theatre, Dublin production which transferred to the West End. Fiona Shaw had played the lead role in that production which was also directed by Deborah Warner.


A BBC production in association with WGBH Boston. Director: Deborah Warner; Writer: Henrik Ibsen; Producer: Simon Curtis. Starring: Fiona Shaw (Mind Games), Brid Brennan, Donal McCann (The Serpent's Kiss), Stephen Rea (The Crying Game), Nicholas Woodeson (The Avengers).

Distributed under licence from Educational Publishers LLP

Hedda Gabler (trans. Friel)

Faber and Faber
Type: Text

Hedda Gabler returns, dissatisfied, from a long honeymoon. Bored by her aspiring academic husband, she foresees a life of tedious convention. And so, aided and abetted by her predatory confidante, Judge Brack, she begins to manipulate the fates of those around her to devastating effect.

Brian Friel's version of Ibsen's Hedda Gabler premiered at the Gate Theatre, Dublin, in September 2008, to celebrate the theatre's birthday, eighty years after the Gate's inaugural production of Ibsen's Peer Gynt.

Hedda Gabler (trans. Meyer)

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Hedda Gabler is a hard and brilliant tragedy on the purposelessness of life, and a comment on the difficulty of finding personal fulfilment in the stifling world of late nineteenth century bourgeois society, particularly for women.

The eponymous Hedda is an electrically complex woman bored to death by her suburban life. Recently married to George Tesman, an academic happily absorbed in his obscure research, she returns from their honeymoon to a handsomely furnished house and a meaningless existence. In the drawing room, with an insidious judge, a wayward visionary writer and his loyal wife, she impulsively creates a dark, mercurial, anxious drama.

Ibsen wrote Hedda Gabler in Munich in 1890 shortly before his return to Norway. The play initially met with universal condemnation and misunderstanding. This translation was first performed in 1960 at the 4th Street Theatre, New York.

John Gabriel Borkman (trans. Eldridge)

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

A scorching indictment of nineteenth century capitalism, Ibsen’s penultimate play paints a devastating picture of selfish ambition.

John Gabriel Borkman paces alone in an upstairs room. Downstairs, his wife Gunhild waits for their son to vindicate the family name. They have lived on separate floors for eight years, following Borkman’s imprisonment for fraud on an enormous scale. Gunhild’s twin sister Ella, who was also in love with Borkman, arrives – she is dying, and comes to lay her claim to Erhart, the nephew whom she brought up during Borkman’s incarceration.

The atmosphere is impossibly suffocating, ready to crack, and the contest over the affections of the reluctant Erhart brings the submerged conflict screaming on to the stage. John Gabriel Borkman is a work of cold poignancy etched with comedy, a portrait of men and women who have nothing left to lose.

This version, translated by David Eldridge, premiered in 2007 at the Donmar Warehouse, London.

The Lady from the Sea  (trans. Cook)

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Elinor Cook's version of The Lady from the Sea relocates the action of Henrik Ibsen's 1888 play from 19th-century Norway to a Caribbean island in the 1950s. The play was first performed at the Donmar Warehouse, London, on 18 October 2017 (previews from 12 October).

The play is mostly set in and around an old colonial house belonging to Doctor Wangel, sometime in the mid-1950s. Wangel's second wife, Ellida, the lighthouse-keeper’s daughter, feels trapped in her marriage and longs for the sea. When a mysterious seagoing Stranger, a man to whom Ellida was once betrothed, makes an appearance after years of absence, she is forced to decide between freedom and the new life she has made for herself.

The Donmar Warehouse production was directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah and designed by Tom Scutt. It was performed by Jim Findley, Helena Wilson, Jonny Holden, Ellie Bamber, Finbar Lynch (as Doctor Wangel), Tom Mckay, Nikki Amuka-Bird (as Ellida) and Jake Fairbrother.

The Lady from the Sea (trans. Eldridge)

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Ibsen's lyrical and still startlingly modern masterpiece vibrantly explores the constrained social position of women. When the lighthouse keeper's daughter Ellida meets the widower Dr Wangel, she tries to put her long-lost first love far behind her and begin a new life as a wife and stepmother. But the tide is turning, an English ship is coming down the fjord, and the undercurrents threaten to drag a whole family beneath the surface in this passionate and sweeping drama. Ellida must choose between the solid and reliable values of the land and the fluid, mysterious and frightening attraction of the sea.

David Eldridge's translation is subtle, faithful and sensitive to Ibsen's language, and makes this classic play accessible to the English reader without compromising any of the original's intensely poetic and atmospheric tone. This version of The Lady from the Sea was first performed in 2010 at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester.

Mrs Affleck

Faber and Faber
Type: Text

I know. No country matters. Not in the kitchen.

Not on a Sunday. Not in England.

After six lonely weeks with nobody but her disabled boy for company, Rita Affleck, wealthy, beautiful and consumed by jealous love, welcomes home her husband Alfred. But, far from the passionate reunion she so craves, there is only torment as Alfred's possessive half-sister arrives, and he announces his great revelation.

I want things how they were ... My perfect poet ...

1945, one afternoon in London - on the floor,

every last undiluted drop of you.

Taking Ibsen's Little Eyolf as the inspiration for a passionate and tragic tale of obsessive love, set in 1950s England, Samuel Adamson's Mrs Affleck opened at the National Theatre, London, in January 2009.

Peter Gynt (Adapt. Hare)

Faber and Faber
Type: Text

In this radical new version of Peer Gynt, David Hare kidnaps Henrik Ibsen's most famous hero and runs away with him into the twenty-first century.

Stripped of fretwork and greenery, the play is projected into a freewheeling modern world of music, dance, poetry, weddings, coronations, trolls and two-headed children as Peter steals a bride and embarks on an extraordinary lifetime's journey before returning home, finally, to Scotland.

David Hare's Peter Gynt posits the same fundamental question the great Norwegian asked in 1867: does a belief in individualism help or hinder us in trying to live purposefully in the present day?

At the dawn of the twentieth century Norway had two national theatres: Den Nationale Scene in Bergen (founded 1876) and the Nationaltheater in Christiania (later Oslo), which opened in 1899. Construction of the monumental Nationaltheater, on a prime plot between the university and the parliament, was funded by the emerging middle class of bankers, merchants and lawyers. Both of these theatres are still in operation. There were also theatres in such coastal cities as Kristiansand, Arendal, Stavanger and Trondheim; but they were used mainly by amateur groups or sporadically by touring companies.

In 1913 Arne and Hulda Garborg founded Det Norske Teatret in Oslo. It was dedicated to furthering the cause of the minority, rural language, Nynorsk, and to presenting themes and characters thought to be specifically 'Norwegian'. Despite its nationalist and rural roots, it quickly became Norway's most international theatre, often presenting challenging new plays from abroad, occasionally guest-directed by some of Europe's finest directors.

The history of Norwegian theatre since the Second World War has been marked by a high degree of decentralization and increasing subsidies. As part of the 'rebuilding' of the country in the postwar era, the ruling Labour party formulated an aggressive programme to strengthen the arts. Theatre companies in Oslo, Bergen, Trondheim and Stavanger were given regular subsidies, thus ensuring their survival. A national touring company, Riksteatret, was founded in 1948, and a school for actors was opened in 1953. (Since 1980 the school has also had a programme for directors.)

At the end of the century there were seven major theatre companies in Norway's five largest cities, and professional or semi-professional companies in eight smaller towns. Of particular note is the Sami (Lapp) theatre in Kautokeino, Beaivvas. All these companies are heavily subsidized, with 60–90 per cent of revenue coming from local and national funding. There is far less corporate sponsorship than in English-speaking countries, and private donations are very rare. Each year these theatres sell about 1.3 million tickets in a country of 4.2 million people.

All the government-funded theatres have permanent companies (except for three of the smaller regionals). The actors' union has achieved a measure of influence in questions of repertoire and casting. The ensemble system is often accused of fostering stagnation, but perhaps because it works against typecasting, the level of artistic achievement in acting is consistently high. Since the 1970s the notion of a 'dialect-free' stage speech has been eroded and young actors typically strive to retain some of their local dialect.

Norwegian theatre has become highly international. Seeing a new play most often means seeing a recent foreign play in translation, and theatres are quick to pick up on new trends and authors abroad, particularly in the English-speaking world. Foreign directors working in Norway have also provided new impulses; they include Silviu Purcărete (Romania), Gábor Zsámbéki (Hungary), Krystyna Skuszanka (Poland), Sam Besekow (Denmark), John Barton (England), Jan Hâkanson (Sweden) and Jacques Lasalle (France). The importance of new Norwegian plays has declined steadily since Ibsen's day, and by the end of the century there seemed to be less good, new writing being produced in Norway than in other countries with comparable theatre activity. Three significant writers earlier in the century were Nordahl Grieg, Oskar Braaten and Helge Krog. Their works are occasionally revived. Of contemporary playwrights, Klaus Hagerup, Terje Nordby, Julian Garner, Cecilie Løveid and others have written consistently interesting plays. With the emergence of Jon Fosse (b. 1959) as a playwright in 1994 (by which time he had many successful novels and volumes of poetry behind him), Norwegian theatre seems to have found a new voice of international size. His plays have been produced far afield. Writing in Nynorsk, Fosse often presents primal scenes of family life. In Sonen (The Son, 1997), a prodigal son returns from the city to his ancestral farm. The only other characters are his father and mother, and the play concerns the gap that has grown between them. Fosse's plays are written in a tightly controlled, minimalistic and mesmerizing style, filled with ellipses and repetitions of stock phrases signifying a failure to communicate. Many critics have proclaimed his body of plays the finest since Ibsen.

from Michael Evans, The Continnum Companion to Twentieth Century Theatre, ed. Colin Chambers (London, 2002).