in situ: Julius Caesar project cast
in situ:’s 2018-19 Julius Caesar Project

Having completed our successful summer productions, in situ:’s next offering is an eight-week autumn course on The Theatre of Henrik Ibsen. This is the initial term of our usual three-term project structure, to which participants can commit term-by-term. in situ:’s previous recent three-term courses have resulted in performances of – among others – Three Sisters, Measure for Measure, Woyzeck and Julius Caesar.

The first term of this course introduces participants to a range of Ibsen’s work and the dramatic skills involved in performing it. The following term, beginning in January 2020, focusses on a single Ibsen play, while the summer term 2020 creates a production of that play to be performed in July.

This article explains the first, autumn course through the comments of course tutor and in situ: artistic director Richard Spaul.

Richard, why Ibsen?

Ibsen is one of the most remarkable dramatists in world theatre. He brought social issues and psychological intensity to the stage in a way that very few dramatists had done since the time of Shakespeare.

Ibsen’s work is hard-hitting, complex, uncompromising, brilliant. I’ve worked on his material once before, in a piece called Hedda Gabler Project (2005), and I’m very much looking forward to doing so again.

He explores what we would now, post-Freud, call unconscious desires and drives. He looks below the surface of bourgeois life and mercilessly exposes what’s underneath. He explores dark corners of the psyche. It isn’t always pretty.

Which of Ibsen’s plays will you be focussing on during the course?

All the plays we’ll be considering delve into the dark corners. Ghosts focuses on sexually-transmitted infections – in this case transmitted from a father who everyone thought was a pillar of the community.

In The Master Builder, Ibsen looks at mental illness and the power of fantasy. The central character has a morbid delusion – if it is a delusion – that he can bring things about just by willing them.

In When We Dead Wake, Ibsen’s last play, he looks at how the act of artistic creation can destroy people’s lives. The action concerns sculptor Rubek’s confrontation with Irena, his former model and muse, who has returned ‘from the dead’ to accuse him of stealing her life, consuming it in his work. As the action nears its conclusion, the two seem to be forming an uncanny ‘suicide pact’.

Which aspects of Ibsen’s approach to theatre will you be concentrating on?

I’m particularly focussing on Ibsen’s groundbreaking shift which took drama from the verse form to a more natural, Realistic style. He began his career by writing verse dramas, but then abandoned that form – and was haunted his whole life by doing so. But it had to be done.

It had to be done because English and German drama in the 19th century was almost always in verse, but verse which had become increasingly mannered and irrelevant to the realities of the time. With great courage and insight, Ibsen realised he needed to write as ordinary people spoke – and he worked on this repeatedly in his later plays.

In so doing, he – together with Swedish playwright Strindberg – started the Realist form in theatre. The impact of this on Western drama is incalculable. Dramatically, we’re really still in Ibsen’s era.

In fact, he himself progressed on from early Realism. In his late plays, of which we’re looking at two, he keeps the Realist mode (real time, domestic settings, naturalistic conversation) but brings in a more intense symbolism, so as to explore the Unsaid and the Unconscious. For example, The Master Builder is full of trolls and When We Dead Wake is full of vampires.

Ibsen’s work moves towards what would, a generation later, appear as Expressionism. And it’s partly for that reason that, in our course, I want to explore Ibsen in connection with Edward Munch, who is often seen as a crucial forerunner of Expressionism. Munch’s themes run closely parallel to Ibsen’s – and he did a famous lithograph of Ibsen at a café in what is now Oslo. I’m hoping that the cross-media comparison between painter and dramatist will be a very fruitful one to examine during the course.

What’s your approach to teaching Ibsen – theoretical or practical?

The approach is almost all practical and is all in terms of in situ:’s own process, including two of our main strengths – vocal work and site-specific setting. We won’t be reconstructing acting techniques from the 19th century; instead, we will be challenging Ibsen’s texts through contemporary theatre practice. We’ll also be looking, critically and in detail, at Realist acting technique – with more than a nod to the great past practitioners such as Stanislavsky. Much theatre today is beset with very vague notions of Realism, poorly thought-out and executed, so we’ll be taking the form very seriously, through some deep exploratory work.

Participants can continue for two more terms, to a performance of one of Ibsen’s plays. But what will they be doing during this first term?

Each class typically begin with games and warm-ups, move on to considering a particular approach or technique, then culminate in group-devised work that seeks to employ what we think we’ve learned.

These devised works are shared with the group and are often quickly-created yet startlingly-good performances. This makes for very varied, very productive and very enjoyable sessions. We won’t be performing for any outside audience during this first term.

This all sounds quite challenging. Do participants need to have done much drama work before? And what type of participant do you feel will most benefit from the course?

The course is definitely challenging physically, intellectually and emotionally; it involves hard thinking, devising, technique-learning, with constant challenges for everyone throughout. Which is as it should be.

But when people use the word ‘challenging’, they sometimes think of competitiveness, an unsafe atmosphere – you might get kicked out if you’re not good enough! Our stuff is not like that. We pride ourselves on a safe environment, one that’s friendly, encouraging and non-judgemental, one in which people of varying levels of ability, knowledge and experience can all thrive. So in that respect. our course isn’t challenging at all – it’s warm-hearted, inclusive and fun. The course should be of great interest to ambitious, experienced performers, whether or not they’ve worked with in situ: before. This includes professional, semi- professional and aspiring–professional performers; there will be a great deal to learn for such people. But everyone’s welcome – including those with little or no experience, or people with experience but within other media – writers, visual artists
and so on.

What do you think will be most enjoyable about this course – for the participants and for you?

There’s so much to look forward to. Exploring the work of an amazing dramatist. Working with other gifted and highly-motivated participants. Good professional teaching focussed on learning new approaches and techniques to provide a really good training ground. Our friendly and welcoming atmosphere. Getting a lot done, learning something new every session, making progress. And, of course, having fun.

Dates: Monday October 14 – Monday December 2, 2019
Times: 8pm – 10pm
Venue: St Andrews Hall, Church Street, Chesterton, Cambridge.
Cost: 199 GBP