Helmer reads the letter

A Reluctant Ibsenite

My first experience of Ibsen was not a happy one – I’m probably not alone in that…

Helmer reads the letter
Helmer reads the letter

On reaching 18  – too old to stay in the youth theatre but clearly lacking confidence about joining the adult community theatre –  I was invited to watch a dress rehearsal of Hedda Gabler.

I had absolutely no introduction to it or them or why I was going there. It was a big leap from appearing as the first amateur to interpret Mary Magdalene in Jesus Christ Superstar to watching a group of “old people” in fake Victoriana talking about “vine leaves.”

I think I said thank you but nobody seemed particularly worried when I left and didn’t come back. Maybe my youth and beauty (joke) frightened them – or maybe they just didn’t notice. After that, I think, we set up our own senior section and that’s how I met my husband, Just Jones &’s designer Jens Demant Cole (6 years and a circumnavigation of the globe later).

I know I read most of Ibsen that summer. I know that because I have the Penguin editions of the plays inscribed in biro with the date on my shelf. I remember liking the titles, not A Doll’s House (I didn’t like that title) When We Dead Awaken, The Master Builder, Hedda Gabler, what I read and what I’d seen bore no relation….

And thereafter, I steered a course around Mr Ibsen until I found myself telling one of those glorious fibs (which fall out of your mouth) in an interview and landing up teaching a course on Stanislavski…. Which led to creating resources on Sam Mendes’ 10th Anniversary Season of Checkov’s Uncle Vanya  and Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night … which led via Old Vic New Voices to joining the new Almeida Theatre team in 2003. Under the artistic direction of Michael Attenborough, I was introduced to the Lady from the Sea (version Pam Gems) and the richness that is Norway’s national poet and one of the pillars of modern drama.

Thanks to this and the subsequent programming of Hedda Gabler in a version by Richard Eyre (and my discovery that I could read Norwegian via Danish– see my work in Denmark on Romeo and Juliet) I started to investigate what I had been missing out on. The Almeida’s programming was my friend here  – in my five years there I worked on parallel projects supporting The Lady from the Sea, Hedda Gabler, Rosmersholm and I reread all the others (well most of them).

A year long project exploring stage wives with dramaturg Sarah Dickenson has led  – rather by accident – to me directing A Doll’s House at the Exeter Northcott in 2008. (photos in the gallery page). I am very proud of this show which had a too short run and which was inspired by the amazing women I was working with in 21st century theatre, and who were still struggling with the roles of wife and mother simultaneously.

So it was the big ideas that attracted me first, and then it was the dramaturgy. Finally Ibsen joined my small group of all time greats – the people (mostly men that we know about) who really change the conditions/weather of the theatre (mine are Shakespeare, Brecht Moliere and there are one or two still alive who might join that list).

So much committed to their medium they investigate truly what it can mean to be a part of it. Who take the tradition, reform it and move it on.

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