It’s Cold and Gray in Scandinavian Plays

It’s Cold and Gray in Scandinavian Plays

At that point, Mr. Noren’s direction becomes less subtle, with ill-defined stage action on the other side of the gauze curtain. The text’s sharp tonal contrasts reward close attention at times, but it’s easy to lose track of individual story lines as the characters babble away in their own worlds. They are together on stage, yet very much alone in their mental and physical decay. Upon entering this world, abandoning all hope is practically a prerequisite.

Death also haunts “Le 20 Novembre,” another play by Mr. Noren, which opened at the Maison des Métallos in Paris shortly before “Poussière.” Written in the wake of a 2006 school shooting in Emsdetten, Germany, this monologue imagines the final hour of the 18-year-old killer, Sebastian Bosse, in his bedroom.

The idea for the play came from an actor from the company of Berlin’s Schaubühne theater, Anne Tismer, who was so struck by the event that she contacted Mr. Noren. Under his direction, Ms. Tismer created the lead role in the original production. The text is gender-neutral as a result, but in the version here in Paris, the director Elodie Chanut has cast a male actor, Nathan Gabily.

Ms. Chanut’s production is tight and straightforward. The small set recreates a spare teenage bedroom; Sebastian tapes his final message with a video camera connected to a small, unobtrusive screen. The performance rests squarely on the shoulders of the excellent Mr. Gabily, who brings an unsettling physicality to the role, his eyes wide with irrational intensity.

The attention given to killers and their motives in the wake of shootings remains controversial, but there is value in exploring the buildup to the crime through fiction. One of Sebastian’s counterintuitive mantras, in “Le 20 Novembre,” is that he’s not a Nazi, despite the hatred and xenophobia that Mr. Noren makes plain. References to bullying at the school he attacks point to a teenager who feels cast out by society, and a mention of the Columbine massacre suggests there are common traits between Emsdetten and other campus attacks.


Jérôme Bidaux and Radouan Leflahi in “Peer Gynt,” a Henrik Ibsen play directed by David Bobée.

Arnaud Berthereau

Ms. Chanut took “Le 20 Novembre” as an opportunity to speak directly to high school students, and she stages workshops in the banlieues, the low-income, multicultural suburbs of big French cities, alongside performances. When, near the end, Sebastian asks, “Does anyone want to say something before I go?,” the audience at the Maison des Métallos remained silent. With teenagers from Nanterre, in the west of Paris, however, the question provoked reactions, leading to a follow-up creation, “Notre 20 Novembre” (“Our November 20”), performed recently in Colombes, another Parisian suburb.

The Norwegian Henrik Ibsen would have recognized Mr. Noren’s fascination with moral gray areas. They are front and center in his classic “Peer Gynt,” from 1876, in which a hopelessly self-involved antihero goes on a journey from Norway to North Africa that veers between realism and fantasy.

Two productions made their way to Paris in the space of a few weeks, and both served to highlight the conundrum this early Ibsen play represents today. David Bobée, a popular director who is at the helm of Rouen’s National Dramatic Center, opted to faithfully follow the text and its wild jumps in time and space in his staging, which is touring France through April. His atmospheric, circus-inspired sets, which he created alongside Aurélie Lemaignen, offered a promising starting point, but Mr. Bobée lost his way in the painfully long fourth and fifth acts, however, despite punchy performances from many in the cast.

At the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, Irina Brook, the director of the Théâtre National de Nice, sidestepped the issue by rewriting much of the second half. Her music-driven adaptation, initially created in Salzburg, Austria, in 2012 and performed in English, layers songs by Iggy Pop and poems by Sam Shepard on top of Ibsen’s narrative. The Icelandic actor Ingvar Sigurdsson deploys mercurial energy in the title role, and the Indian dancer and choreographer Shantala Shivalingappa makes a radiant, delicate Solveig.

Neither Ms. Brook nor Mr. Bobée solves the central problem Solveig represents, however. After a brief period of happiness with her, Peer Gynt runs away, asking Solveig to wait for him. When he returns decades later, in true prodigal son fashion, she’s still there to provide redemption, like some virginal angel — a cliché of 19th-century romanticism.

It’s a terribly dated ending, and one directors need to reckon with. One possible way forward would be to experiment with a female actor as Peer Gynt. In the meantime, Paris’s winter fling with Scandinavian theater is set to continue: the Théâtre du Nord-Ouest will be next to throw its hat in the “Peer Gynt” ring, as part of a larger Ibsen retrospective.

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