Originally published in Cue.
In between showings of his fast selling out adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House, Cue managed to grab director and 2015 Standard Bank Young Artist for Theatre Christiaan Olwagen for a quick chat and a photoshoot. Olwagen made his name at Festival directing the self-described appropriation Woza Andries? in 2010.
You’ve just come back from your first showing of the day and you’ve got another one later. How are you feeling?
Uh … good. I think it’s all still very overwhelming. People can ask me after the Festival what I think or what I feel. We just wanna … not get it over and done with … but get the job done.
I saw Woza Andries five years ago when you brought it to Festival and really loved it. How does someone go from working on a play like that, to directing an adaptation of a classic like Doll’s House?
Well, I’ve had a couple of plays in between. So I think the progression has been there. I started with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at Aardklop and then I did Chekhov’s Seagull and now this is my third classic. But I also classify Woza Andries? as an adaptation because it is based on Woza Albert. I don’t really know why I’m so interested in appropriating other works. I think I’m interested in how we still slip backwards, how plays that were written for their time can still be applied today with just a little dusting and polishing.
You chose to keep certain elements from the play intact. For example, on the set itself, in big pink, neon letters is the original Norwegian name of the play, Et Dukkehjem. But why do you think Ibsen’s Doll’s House, particularly, carries over to a modern audience?
I think because people have tended to analyse the play and, in particular, view it out of a feminist lens. I can quote Ibsen on this where he says he’s delighted that the women’s liberation movement has claimed the play, but he’s much more interested in a description of humanity. So I think it’s because Ibsen really tried to capture an inner landscape and he wove that into his characters.
You were popping in and out of the play from the top balcony where the sound desk is. Is that where you prefer watching the plays?
Well, I’m an absolute nicotine addict so that’s my process of letting go. When I want to control things, I go out and have a smoke, I go to the bathroom, I walk around and then I come back.
Your version of the play has a lot of doef-doef music in it. The choice of that music seems to be important to the way you structured the play.
I wanted the play, though it’s English, to have the spirit of Norway and Scandinavia. But the spirit of today and I’m a fan of Scandinavian pop music. Most of the pop that we listen to is actually from there. I knew from the get-go I wanted to use pop music because for me, Nora is a little girl; she’s a teenager. Her arrested development is that of a 13 year old who’s trying to relive the 1980s.
So that’s why there’s also Bjork in there.
Yes, exactly. Also I found it odd that halfway through the show there’s a random dance scene so I wanted to systematically introduce this idea that Nora needs that sort of physical expression. In the 1800s they had this thing called choreomania, or dancing sickness, where people will go out into the street because they can’t help it and other people will join in and dance themselves to death. So I wanted to give Nora choreomania. Throughout the play she is literally dancing herself to death.
Finally, what does the play mean to you?
Personally, I suffer from anxiety and neuroses and a bit of OCD. I think all of us do. We’re all just chasing ourselves and you’re not really sure what it is but we try to find acceptance through these labels we put on ourselves. I’m a wife. I’m a mother. That’s me. And I think people are more than just what they do.