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Judgement Day

A new version of Henrik Ibsen’s When We Are Dead Awaken

By Mike Poulton

MailOnline, 22nd November 2011, Patrick Marmion

Here’s a formidable challenge: one of London’s newest boutique theatre venues seeking to scale the pitiless, wind-blasted heights of one of Henrik Ibsen’s most precipitous dramas.

And this feisty little theatre does so with a very fine team led by experienced climbers of treacherous classic texts, Michael Pennington and Penny Downie.

Based on When We Dead Awaken, the ascent is uncompromisingly steep. After all, this is the last play from the master of Norwegian gloom.

What’s more , Ibsen is here found facing death in the form of his proxy - a haughty sculptor at the end of his life. He is a man with an open Messiah complex played with weaselly slitty-eyed suspicion by Pennington.  A Leonardo of self-aggrandisement.

He has returned to the mountains of his youth with a pretty young wife, but their crumbling marriage is sundered by the arrival of the ghost of Pennington’s lifelong muse. This is Downie in fearsome form looking like a Greek goddess in a white empire-line dress and nursing no good intentions towards the man she feels betrayed her youth.

Since she left him he has been a hack doing portraits of freemasons and bankers. Now he has one last chance.

Credit to write Mike Poulton whose new version of the play gives human scale to a forbidding expedition. Indeed he keeps it the right side of Ibsenian self-parody as characters seek mystical union with the sun.

It is moreover given a coolly modern look in James Dacre’s lean and sure-footed production. And Mike Britton’s design sets the action in a shiny turquoise box flanked by the audience as though looking down from cloudy mountain-tops projected beyond.

But perhaps the production’s greatest achievement is to keep in sight the characters’ vigour. This includes light, even comic touches from Sara Vickers as the defiant young wife and Philip Correia as a randy, Lawrentian Geordie Baron.

Pennington and Downie meanwhile breathe warmth into the play’s potentially stony abstractions about life and art. Together they charge the frequently rarified atmosphere with a sense of vitality that belies their characters’ age.

You may need your intellectual climbing gear for this one but the panoramas are undoubtedly stirring.

The Guardian, 22nd November 2011, Michael Billington

No, this is not the Ödön con Horváth play of the same name. This is actually a retitled version by Mike Poulton of Ibsen’s notoriously treacherous last play, When We Dead Awaken, written in 1859 and rarely revived. And, even if I have a few cavils about Poulton’s translation, it makes for a powerful evening in James Dacre’s highly concentrated, 85-minute production.

Ibsen’s real subject in this symbol-heavy play is himself. He embodies his own guilt in the figure of Rubek, an aged sculptor who has achieved world fame at the expense of happiness. But returning to Norway after a long absence with his restless young wife, Maia, he is abruptly reclaimed by the mysterious Irena who was the model for his most famous work. Accused by Irena of sacrificing her love for him to the ideal of pure art, Rubek seeks redemption by suicidally ascending with her to the top of a mist-wreathed mountain.

This is an unrelenting portrait of the artist as an old man, one who committed what to Ibsen was always the greatest sin, which is to kill the love-life in a human heart. But, in a play already riddled with self-accusation, Poulton rather overdoes the indictment of the narcissistic artist. Ibsen’s original title carried within it a hint of resurrection which, in effect, is what happens to both the newly awakened Rubek and the model he immortalised in stone: Judgement Day, however, excludes the possibility of rebirth. Determined not to let Rubek off the hook, Poulton also has Irena say, when she accuses him of being a poet, “There’s something slimy and fey and irresponsible in the word.” Contrast Michael Meter’s more moderate translation: “It is a word that condones all sins and spreads a cloak over every weakness.”

All quibbles aside, Dacre’s production, played on a mirror-like traverse stage, offers us a thrilling battle of wills. Michael Pennington, something of an expert in late Ibsen, catches superbly Rubek’s mixture of tetchiness,self-absorption and overwhelming hunger to create. Penny Downie rightly plays down the idea that Irena is clinically insane and offers instead a brilliant portrayal of a woman who feels passionately wronged by Rubek’s denial of her sensuality, and Sara Vickers lends Rubek’s young wife the spirit of a caged animal. A play that often seems wilfully obscure in its lack of diurnal realism here acquires, through some magnificent acting, a flawed grandeur.

The Stage, 22nd November 2011, Nicholas Hamilton

As it celebrates its first year as a theatre, the Print Room presents Ibsen’s final play, When We Dead Awaken, under a new title and in a new translation by Mike Poulton. The rarely performed piece presents the elderly playwright’s musings on the life of the artist.

Professor Rubek, a sculptor, is profoundly bored by his much younger wife. When his muse from an earlier era, Irena, reappears, he sees a chance to get back to the man he once was. Brittle and mysterious, Irena accuses Rubek of having taken everything he wanted from her, without giving her the love she needed.

Michael Pennington’s sonorous voice gives Rubek the power and authority of a great self-absorbed artist. He is comically brutal in the way he puts down his new wife. Despite Rubek’s criticisms, Sara Vickers plays the young wife Maia with self-confidence and wit. But as Irena, Penny Downie is dangerously close to becoming a stereotype of the flaky, damaged hanger-on.

Ibsen’s final play provides interesting insights into the relationship between the artist, his muse and “their child” - the work she inspires him to create. But what is most striking is how unlikeable both the artist and muse are in a play which is believed to be autobiographical.

The Telegraph, 23rd November 2011, Dominic Cavendish

When We Dead Awaken (1899) was the last play Ibsen wrote just before he suffered a series of crippling strokes that left him lost for words, a shadow of his former self. Watching Mike Poulton’s crisp new version, retitled Judgement Day, you might well wonder in horror: did the magus of Norway bring this mental cataclysm on himself?

This is a play wrenched from a place of despairing regret, an anguished self-portrait that asks: what does it profit a man to succeed as an artist if he fails as a human being? It speaks of Ibsen’s particular frustrations while offering a general vision of damnation. What’s our worst nightmare? Maybe simply this - that you can wake up at the end of your life to realise that you haven’t properly begun it yet.

Sporting a mantle of gravitas, constantly churning calculation and slowly shimmering explosive fury, Michael Pennington plays Arnold Rubek - a venerated sculptor taking in the airs at a health spa overlooking a fjord. Everywhere there is tranquility - except in his marriage to the unfulfilled and creatively unstimulating young Maia, and in his own restless mind.

Stalking him like a fury comes the otherworldly figure of Penny Downie’s Irena - eyes madly widening in half-kindly, plaintive looks. Once his model and muse, she accuses Rubek of abandoning her and betraying their “child”, the ‘Judgement Day’ sculpture that was the fruit of their artistic union. There’s a knife in here hand and steel in her heart.

I’m not going to pretend this is an easy, cheery evening, but it’s essential for anyone interested in Ibsen’s progress, and also decline. Even allowing for Poulton’s excisions,there are some criminally underwritten roles for the servants. The vital counterpoint of Baron Uffheim, the swaggering apotheosis of the brutish, unconsidered, fully inhabited life Rubek  has let slip through his fingers, feels sketchy, too. When Philip Correia’s Uffheim seizes the adulterous and animalistic moment up in the mountains to force himself on Sara Vicker’s suddenly alarmed but deeply attracted Maia, there’s a whiff of melodramatic convenience about the confrontation. The evening’s abrupt mystical ending is slightly nonplussing, too.

London Evening Standard, 22nd November 2011, Fiona Mountford

Even with a running time of just 80 minutes, this is still hard work. Mike Poulton’s streamlined new adaptation of When We Dead Awaken (1899), Henrik Ibsen’s dense and rarely performed final play, gets down to business briskly but even so we swiftly feel that we have heard all these characters have to say long before the final mists have descended over that mythical mountain landscape.

Like the other late Ibsen drama The Master Builder, which it resembles, this is a strongly autobiographical piece. He may write about an architect or, as here, a sculptor but Ibsen is really castly a fiercely critical eye over his own life and work. Arnold Rubek (Michael Pennington) created his master sculpture, title Judgement Day, early on. From then money and commissions flowed in, but that vital spark of genius was snuffed out. Now ageing and stuck with a frustrated young wife (the lively Sara Vickers) he claims to detest, he longs to find inspiration once more. When mysterious Irena (Penny Downie) his long-lost “muse” for Judgement Day, walks into his spa hotel, hope flickers faintly.

It’s heightened stuff, sometimes absurdly so to a modern ear, and director James Dacre does well to keep his traverse production grounded. Pennington convincingly suggests an implacable grand homme prepared to sacrifice love for art. Penny Downie, however, is landed with an almost impossible part and struggles to make Irena seem more than fey as she wafts around posed like a statue, dressed in white and followed, of course, by a silent nun.

WhatsOnStage, 22nd November 2011, Michael Coveney

The first title of Ibsen’s last play was “Resurrection Day”, but who want to mess with the eerily evocative When We Dead Awaken, as it’s usually known in English? Translator Mike Poulton and director James Dacre, what’s who, for some reason.

But Judgement Day is already the title of a play by Odon von Horvath, seen twice at the fringe (at the Old Red Lion and the Almeida) and Poulton’s ‘new version’ of When We Dead Awaken - no credit for literal translation, and who the hell’s that speechless nun who keeps putting her mug in the doorway? - seems skinny and slight.

That said, Michael Pennington as the desiccated old sculptor, Rubek, and Penny Downie as his ghost-like muse and model, Irena de Satoff, play out their half-dead, half-alive mountainside reunion with a compelling mixture of charm, poignancy and bitterness.

Mike Britton’s design of neutral plastic surfaces and a filmic surround - the audience seated in a traverse arrangement on either side - invites us to imagine the rivers and waterfalls, the snow storms and woodland vistas that surround Rubek and his new young wife, Maia (an attractively impetuous Sara Vickers) in their holiday hotel.

Rubek is already ascending to his apotheosis when Maia is seduced by another guest in the hotel, a lusty Baron (Philip Correia) who is attended by his canine master of hounds, Lars (Andrew Hanratty), all done up in leathers and chains. Irena, too, was once held captive, and exhinited naked on a turntable for hundreds of men. Like Maia, in her won way, she’s returning to the elements.

Pennington exudes a gnawing frustration and a feeling of art-in-despair; both he and Downie transcend the slightly absurd ‘smallness’ of the show in their straight-faced poetic overreaching, though I’m not sure the Soviet poster attitude they strike at the end fully conveys the tumultuous consummation Ibsen describes. But it’s a pleasure to be close up to such fine acting.

Rubek, like the ageing Ibsen and, some say, the sculptor Rodin, is coming to an understanding of his failures as husband and artist. The impact of the play should be as overwhelming as the scenery. But for all its compact ingenuity of playing, we have to imagine the wilder territories of thought and expression as much as we do the landscape. Restoring the play’s proper title would be a good start.