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The thread of the three

After having read Holly's great blog post, I, too, wanted to reflect on the three projects we have collaborated on. It has been a wonderful three years working on these productions with some amazing actors and I have been trying to understand why these three productions (Lady Inger (Produced by Jump Cut Productions), Emilia Galotti and The Feast at Solhaug) have resonated so much with me and how I have approached them from the beginning. Why did I even choose these pieces?

The Patriarchy

To start with, each of the three play's female protagonists are faced with inescapable environments, which they have no functional control over. They make their decisions in these environments and external forces bring about the need for 'final decisions' for the protagonists which (mostly) bring about the most brutal conclusions. All three plays deal with the subjugation of women, where no matter what circumstances and no matter what nominal control they think they have, there will only be one 'conclusion-by-design' in the end, fashioned by the patriarchal society of the time.

Lady Inger wanted her son's safe return and was punished in the most brutal fashion possible, when trying to act and think like a man. Emilia Galotti refused to allow herself to be taken by those in control and gave up her life, in a most unthinkable way, to save herself. Margit of Solhaug was trapped by her husband and even when trying to rid herself of her husband, almost ruined everything she held dear. Each of the plays show a particular vision of men as cunning, Machiavellian, deceitful, lustful and without self-control. Even the characters to whom we might feel at least some sympathy for, are almost all entirely irredeemable (Olaf, Nils Lykke (Lady Inger), The Prince, Marinelli (Emilia Galotti), Bengt & Gudmund (Feast at Solhaug)).

The extremes between comedy & tragedy

In working on the plays, the very minimum I have done is tried to shape the men into monsters. In a dark way, it has certainly helped in utilising the humour present in the works to make the tragedies even more brutal and stark at the end, highlighting that however frivolous these situations may be, there is an arbitrary and abhorrent ugliness at the end. In this manner I have found Brian Johnston incredibly useful:

"The incongruity between the frivolous cause and the harrowing effect serves Lessing's purpose of stirring up the bourgeois and englightened contempt for a social order whose power of life and death over its subjects does not have the dignity of tragic guilt."

Brian Johnston, To the Third Empire: Ibsen's Early Plays, p. 66

The arbitrariness

In a way, what binds all three are the conclusions of the plays, with thoroughly unfair outcomes for the female protagonists. In both Lady Inger and Emilia Galotti, Johnston considered that both plays had a huge discrepancy between the result and how and why we got there. This, I believe, can leave audiences at a loss by the way things unfold. However, in no better way can we underline that insitutional environments and (seemingly frivolous) acts of others do have very real and deleterious effects on others. One of my most enduring memories of directing Lady Inger was asking for more guttural, core-shaking moans from the actor whose character who had lost everything she had ever dreamed of and more, despite the character not having done much to get into those circumstances. In essence, the tragedy reflects life; no rhyme or reason as to why things strike as they do. You can often feel as though the universe is working against you, but it doesn't make it true, but things can and do happen like this.

"the more we grant life and substance [...] the more we are repelled by the spectacle of their attempts to extricate themselves from a lethal theatrical machinery whose levers are pulled by a playwright who has forgotten he has granted his characters a compelling life. There is a discrepancy between the suffering and the means by which it is brought about"

Brian Johnston, To the Third Empire: Ibsen's Early Plays, p. 65


I think that I have wanted audiences to feel bereft at the end of the plays; reflecting on the lot of women (then and now), the cruel comedy which they took a part in despite the play's subsequent turn to tragedy and the arbitrariness of a life that can reward and ruin from one step to the next. We exist in environments where our options and actions are shaped by the circumstances we find ourselves in. We are never truly our own masters. What Ibsen and Lessing have done is highlight these things in quite brutal fashion, with women who did not deserve their untimely ends. However that is life, and we cannot predict tomorrow.


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