Simon Stone has turned yet again to the works of Henrik Ibsen as a source of inspiration. Ibsen House is produced in cooperation with the ToneelgroepAmsterdam and performed at the companies’ home base, the Amsterdam Stadsschouwburg. Over the course of last season Stone has worked together with the Netherland’s largest repertory company on no less then three productions. This new piece, however, diverges slightly from Stone’s artistic modus operandi. Instead of reworking and adapting a well-known classic as has seen before in Stone’s Medea, The Wild Duck, Miss Julie or Three Sisters, the new production, Ibsen House, takes elements from several of Ibsen’s works and combines them in order to create a new and original play.
At the very heart of this piece lies the holiday home of the distinguished architect, Cees Kerkman. Here the assorted members of the Kerkman family meet and live out the defining moments of their lives. The 53 year long storyline encompasses three different familial generations and takes place between 1964 and May of 2017. As each scene takes place at a different time in the Kerkman’s history, the wandering, non-linear narrative slowly pieces itself together like a jigsaw puzzle. However, as the picture begins to take form we realise that we may not truly want to see how everything comes together. As Stone himself puts it, the entire work permeates ”with a deep insight into families in times of crisis. Into wounds that do not heal.”
The stage design of Lizzie Clachan is very similar to that of her work with a previous Stone production, Three Sisters. A decently sized vacation home is set upon a revolving stage floor. Large, generously positioned windows expose the innermost, private moments of the family within. So, the audience is transformed into an almost unwilling witness to their eventual tragedy. In Ibsen House this is a place of trauma where the dysfunctions instigated by Cees’ secret pedophilic tendencies and the molestation of both his niece and granddaughter cause the family to unravel and ultimately destroy itself.
While grappling with the difficult themes of the piece, the cast, composed mainly by the ensemble of the Toneelgroep, put forth an impressive display of acting prowess. Based upon the reoccurring character archetypes of Ibsen’s works some of the figures within Ibsen House do feel very familiar. With Stone’s finishing strokes, the characters of Cees (Hans Kesting), as a no-nonsense man of business with a dark secret, or Frédérique (Celia Nufaar), as a mother who makes the decision to abandon her children, could very well be the very embodiment of protagonists from Ibsen’s A Doll’s House or Pillars of Society.
With all of its successes, however, the piece does have its fair share of issues. In the overlong second act appropriately titled “Purgatory,” various timelines converged within the house. This allows for situations that could not have otherwise taken place. For example a young Sebastiaan (David Roos) meets and converses with an older version of himself (Maarten Heiljmans). The narrative quickly becomes confusing and problematic as the majority of the cast members perform multiple roles and each of those roles are performed by multiple actors. Even though nearly every character has his or her own fate explained in great detail, the play fails to reach an overarching climax.
On the whole, Ibsen House, with its exceptional ensemble and their admirable conviction, confirms Stone’s claim that theatre could well be the most important art form of this time. “Where else do people still come together to collectively experience and think about something?”