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Judgement Day: Michael Pennington on Ibsen

The Telegraph, 15th November 2011, Daisy Bowie-Sell

The actor, director and co-author of the Faber pocket guide to Ibsen, Chekhov and Strindberg, Michael Pennington, about to star in Judgement Day, an adaptation of Ibsen’s When We Dead Awaken, explains his relationship with the Norweigan playwright.

How many times have you played Ibsen characters?

My relationship with Ibsen came rather late in life. I never played one of those uncomprehending husbands or creepy pastors of A Doll’s House and Hedda Gabler. In the past eight years, I’ve performed in three Ibsen productions. Strangely enough, they are three of the last plays he wrote.

The play you’re in now is called Judgement Day: it’s an adaptation of Ibsen’s When We Dead Awaken. Can you describe the character you play?

He’s a sculptor in his sixties or seventies, and he’s renowned for one great work. He seems to have copped out though and is now making sculptures for aristocrats and Businessmen. He’s slightly lost touch with his artistic roots. He’s on holiday in the Norwegian mountains with his wife, and by chance the woman who modelled for him for his most famous sculpture turns up. They haven’t seen each other since they parted rather dramatically after the sculpture was finished.

It’s his last play, and there are some tricky scenes to stage - did Ibsen think about this when he was writing it, do you think?

It’s dramatically very ambitious. I’m not sure that Ibsen ever intended it to be performed. He worked in his youth as a stage manager, so he would have understood that some of the things he makes happen on stage were extremely to pull-off.

Many say this was a very autobiographical play for Ibsen. Do you agree?

It’s extremely autobiographical. It’s about an artist looking back over his life and wondering if he spent his time correctly or not and what the cost has been.

Ibsen made some quite big sacrifices, exiling himself from Norway (and leaving his wife) when he went to Italy. Towards the end of his life, he came back and nobody really knows exactly what happened, but he had kind of artist-and-muse relationships with much younger women.

What’s your favourite thing about Ibsen?

What I find very interesting about his plays is that on the face of it, everything appears to be quite poetic and expressionistic. If you dig deep enough you find this fascination he had with the relationship between men and women, which is the dame all the way through his career. My hope for this production is that it’s the sort of play where couples will jab each other in the ribs during and maybe argue on the way home - “That’s just like you”.

Do you have a favourite Ibsen play?

I’ve always been able to see that A Doll’s House is an absolute masterpiece. The slamming door is one the great moments in late-19th-century drama. It’s a wonderful thing that she leaves her husband. But I do think those husbands Ibsen writes about are interesting because they start as uncomprehending figures but they learn something. They don’t understand their wives and they eventually begin to see. That’s slap bang up to date and very thrilling to see on stage.

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