When the curtain came down on Norwegian actress Juni Dahr’s performance of ‘Ibsen Women’, half the auditorium gave her a standing ovation. A young girl from the other half, had other ideas. “Nora’s quite a prig. She asks her husband to take control of her life. And then has a problem with it.”
Unlike many actresses who love giving interviews but hate answering questions, Juni had anticipated this response. “Last year when I played Nora, one of literature’s most famous women, I felt the need to update,” she had said the day before the performance, adjusting incredibly long legs to sit in a corner of the room for the photographer to catch the sun in her hair. “People still feel close to Nora’s conflict but it is perhaps time to focus on Thorvald, the husband’s conflict as well. Women’s lib is no more new, so when women leave their home, what happens to their men? Where are they?"
It’s an important question to ask and what a pleasure to watch an actress get the right expression even when she’s not on stage. Juni, however, is always on the job; in her one-woman production, she is scriptwriter, director, choreographer, costume designer and makeup artist.
The music is Chris Poole’s. “And the music is very important,” she adds. “While creating the ‘Ibsen Women’ in 1989 on an acting scholarship to the US, I realised I had to give the audience a feeling of Norway’s mist, sea and snow. Ibsen’s plays are very often about people talking and talking. His women were not just in the house, they had to be sensed through nature.”
But why are they so angry? It’s not pretty. The reason, says the actress, is the climate — long winters, short summers and a tradition of machismo that pushes its men to sea. “When our men are not fishing, they are sailing, when they are not sailing, they are hunting. The women run the home.”
Juni, incidentally, began to think of the Norwegian ‘women’s question’ after she played Joan of Arc in the US. “I was constantly asked: ‘Why is this Norwegian girl playing Joan? Why doesn’t she do Ibsen?’ I realised that Ibsen was more important than I knew. So I tried to find how different his women are from each other and why we are still talking about them. Bergman drew from Ibsen too.”
Between Henrik Ibsen and Ingmar Bergman, Scandinavian actresses are pulled by two sets of histrionics — of suppressing deep emotion and then letting it all hang out.
Ibsen’s women are biting; they rattle the mould. “Bergman’s women hold their emotions back until that one emotional storm,” says Juni in agreement. The biggest challenge, she says, while playing Margareta in Faithless (a late Bergman script directed by his long-time partner and actress Liv Ullman), was not to ‘play’ the character, but be. “Bergman is so good at keeping the conflicts inside and yet he allows the characters’ emotional swell,” says Juni. “He loved to take close-ups, so, as an actress, you had to carry the conflict with you all the time on set. In Faithless, Margareta, my character, is in a relationship with a man who commits suicide and then his wife comes to meet her — it’s a terrible situation.”
As an actress and now director, Juni has never tried to change the text. It’s best not to, she says though she has opened up plays so that different meanings may emerge.
Every culture, however, has played Nora differently. Usha Ganguli, the actress from Bengal had told Juni that when her Nora walked out of the house, she had slapped her forehead and wiped the sindoor off. That’s all the change you can do, says Juni. But whatever you do, you don’t do this: “There was this actress in Germany who played Nora. Her Nora had her fights with Thorvald, the husband, and then didn’t want to leave! Ibsen’s the best. You don’t mess with him.”