Vol 12 2008- Review article

Stars and star vehicles: Giorgio Armani, Cate Blanchett, Liv Ullmann, Henrik Ibsen and the Norwegian-Australian connection

Author Celeste Simons

In 2006 Cate Blanchett starred in the title role of Hedda Gabbler in New York. It was a very brief run. A fine documentary film was made about the occasion and its background. Blanchett’s trip to the United States has led to unfinished and promising business ahead involving hybrid productions between commercial producers and subsidised arts companies sweetened by advertising disguised as corporate sponsorship. In newspaper terms, she was “to put Aussie drama on the world stage”. Blanchett traveled with the Sydney Theatre Company, taking with her a production of Hedda Gabbler tested and tried in New South Wales. The Australians transported their thespian and designing talent, moving from the glorious landscape of the Opera House with its background the iconic Harbor Bridge to what appeared at first sight to be a pedestrian little urban theater in another hemisphere. In New York the cast and their helpers began dismantling their boxes of costumes and props as if they were accompanied by the ghosts of Ingrid Bergman and Greta Garbo at Dramaten.

While not blessed with the stimulating background physical environment of Sydney Harbor or Stockholm’s Slussen, no rocks, no old town, the Brooklyn Academy of Music was innovative, progressive and international in its outlook. An initial problem was that the American stage was so much larger than the Australian one that the Sydney set designs dwarfed by the changes in scale. This small production difficulty was minor compared with the eye-opening experience confronting the Australians when they met a group of students from Brooklyn High School.

The young people hosted a reception for the movie stars, as the actors were primarily regarded. Blanchett was known to students as starring in Oscar and Lucinda, Elizabeth, The Talented Mr. Ripley, The lord of the Rings, The Shipping News, Veronica Guerin, The Aviator and many other successes. The students squealed and screamed with delight as if they were greeting a new President or the winner of a Big Brother contest. They also had a serious purpose as embryo critics and knew their Ibsen back to front. One pupil asked Blanchett if it was hard to change from a movie star to a dramatic actor and in a question and answer session the Australians appeared blasé, commenting that Ibsen was theatre not literature and that the STC would use a re-invented Ibsen in areas which did not strike a modern note.

The Australian cast was puzzled when students spoke of the canon of Ibsen’s work, and did not take seriously the veneration engendered by scholarly comparative study of a wide range of plays. You do not have to be Michael Meyer to understand Ibsen. At the end of the day there was during the performance of Hedda Gabbler an energy exchange between actors and audience, but something was missing. Bits of the set looked like they had been bought at IKEA. Some actors looked like they worked for Simplicity Funerals. Judge Brack seemed to have modeled himself on Tim Park’s Judge Deed. Despite dogged hard work the production did not look genuine even though the audience could sniff local references: madly erotic women in red dresses, Edvard Munch’s paintings of burgers in top hats, even nutty figures on a Bridge. Blanchett’s piano playing had a touch of the dreary and unconvincing Norwegian movie starring Ingrid Bergman and Liv Ullmann Autumn Sonata about it as Hedda Gabbler called for Blanchett to mime piano playing. Blanchett she struck the keys as if she were a virtuoso Chinese child prodigy, rather than a Norwegian general’s daughter on the verge of suicide.


Nature did not scream, nor did the critics who were grateful that Gabbler, Lovborg and Tesman were not given more easily digestible names like Condoleezza, Spiro or George. Both in Sydney and New York Cate Blanchett was asked to consider whether she fell into the category of “an actress of a certain age” who felt “she must play Hedda”- an observation denied on the reasonable grounds that with her established background she was not intererested using Hedda as “a star vehicle”.

Hugo Weaving (Priscilla, Queen of the Desert with ABBA music) was part of the ensemble. He had seen two twentieth century stage productions of Hedda Gabbler and he had been disappointed. Why it was a classic? Probably he was too young at the time to have seen the traveling troop of world beating actors led by Glenda Jackson. Weaving used a modern Australian version of Hedda Gabbler, adapted for the stage by Andrew Upton, who threw away the Penguin edition of 1954 and boasted that he wrote lines into the play that were not in Ibsen, not even thought of by Ibsen.

Cate Blanchett is Australia’s answer to Glenda Jackson: intelligent, entrepreneurial and not content to coast along on her beauty and talent. Fate sent both Jackson and Blanchett in different direction and their lives have had outcomes even they could not have foreseen. Both stars of theatre and film, Jackson moved to a political career in the House of Commons, where her skills and aptitudes have been as yet insufficiently tapped. Blanchett has swung between extremes of enthusiasm, and during her career doing voice over bread and butter work for a spin doctor’s attempt to popularise the English Monarchy. This effort required more acting skill than imagining herself as Hedda Gabbler. Blanchett had to keep a straight face while she reported that The Prince was pledged to reduce his carbon footprint, but sometimes a Royal Helicopter was required by circumstances. Since his mother had 24 Rolls Royce, Bentleys etc and a Royal Train his efforts must have seemed futile although the clock collection – 630 in Buckingham Palace, over 200 in Sandringham to be fair have no effect on the ozone layer or global warming. Blanchett had to listen while courtiers revealed that the corgis went mad when the Queen’s deluge of musical Christmas cards arrived from her subjects. Blanchett fitted in her voice- over between frequent references to the Queen’s stipulation of the correct relationship between gin and vermouth, and appeared not to wince when the First Battalion of the Scots guards played bagpipes in a confined space. She watched while the Duke of Edinburgh beamed as if he had just passed his dementia test, and remained unmoved as the Queen scowled regularly while she swung her handbag, as symbolic and important for her as was fellow megalomaniac Hermann Goering’s jeweled field marshal’s baton.

Blanchett carried all this off brilliantly doing exactly what was required as spokeswoman for , as was stressed, a year in the ROYAL family. Blanchett’s Dalek- style delivery was a refreshing contrast to Penelope Keith’s over the top send up of the English class system. When Keith did a similar assignment for the National Trust and its gardens her subtle mockery almost put one off Sissinghurst, or should I say orf Sissinghurst.

Genius in a variety of settings and roles by the young actress did not save Blanchett from the jinx of Ibsen and the Bermuda triangle of incomprehension which Australian and Norwegians feel for each other. Performances by Australians of Ibsen have almost always failed. Despite surprising coincidences of national historical experiences, Australians have yet to grasp Ibsen’s place in the world of letters and do justice to his vision. Probably there was not much point in trying. To take it from a nineteenth century Nordic perspective and time travel: Cate Blanchett was the only the second performer in Oscar history to be nominated for playing a member of the opposite sex; could Siri Von Essen have done that? Could Von Essen play Charlotte Gray? Sometimes extraordinary aptitude, inventive innovation and even beauty are not enough.

This does not mean that Australian-Scandinavian industrial co- productions do not have their place in wide apart contexts. Film and weapons manufacture are both industries. The Swedish cinema making icon is called Film Industri, and you do not have to be Andrew Upton to translate that. Brilliant work has been turned out by Swedish Film Industry and the South Australian Film Corporation who produced a fine work on Aboriginal victimisation by the Australian Legal System in the immediate post war years. The story of Rupert Max Stuart needed to be told, and if only Swedish crowns and Australian dollars would fund it, power to the arm of the entrepreneurs and visionaries who pulled it off. Called for the market place, which rejected it, Black and White, the story of Stuart had every ingredient to satisfy a Swedish social democrat wish list for providing a moral lesson in a setting of racism and oppression. During Stuart’s life time the most popular song on the Australian hit parade, Tie me kangaroo down was sung by Welsh immigrant Rolf Harris who now has repatriated himself to the UK, paints his Queen and lives near Bray on the Thames with a lawn to the water’s edge sporting a giant crocodile. Harris wishes he had not written the lines

Let me abos go loose Bruce,
They’re of no further use

But at the time all almost Australians sang that in the shower. Stuart was accused by the police of rape and murder of a child on an outback beach in a crime so blood thirsty perhaps Henning Mankell would have rejected for Ystad. A confession was beaten out the suspect. With the approval of Rupert Murdoch (who owned it), the Adelaide News, took up the case as a watershed opportunity to get rid of capital punishment in South Australia, a State which whipped appropriate offenders with a cat of nine tails and hanged selected murderers as a matter of preference. As an Aboriginal naturally Stuart was sentenced to death, but he had his sentence stayed on many occasions, appealed to the Privy Council and lost, spent years hard labour in a prison, and has lived to see his tribal affiliations catapult him – perhaps I should say woomera him – to a power of such national usefulness that he was chosen to welcome on one occasion the Queen of England – Australia’s King Oscar – on one of her many Royal visits to her far flung dominions.


In another context, Swedish camera work helped Peter Weir with Picnic at Hanging Rock in 1975, the film which set him on the road to life as a prestigious Hollywood director. At the time Weir protested that he was not influenced by Ingmar Bergman, and Sven Nykvist was nothing more than an inspired choice to provide the dreamy atmosphere of a schoolgirl jolly in 1900. Weir was not being disingenuous. For some reason, Australian-Swedish creative unions work whereas Australian-Norwegian minds do not connect.

Its no coincidence that Australian-Norwegian diplomatic relations has been marked more by enmity than amity. The Tampa incident, during which a ship flying the Norwegian flag was harried by Australian commandos when it attempted land stricken illegal immigrants on Australian Territory, brought out the sabers from the diplomatic cupboards in Oslo and Canberra as Australian and Norwegian Foreign Ministers traded insults. By a curious coincidence, Australian naval forces were protected by Swedish designed submarines, modeled on the Kalmar class. Bigger that the Swedish prototypes, this major defense engineering project led to unbridled hostility and enmity between the Swedish and Australian principals. This was particularly unfortunate as the Aussie mutant monsters turned out to be world beaters in submarine war games, where they sank – on paper – masses of friendly allies. Fortunately their first Collins- class torpedo fired in anger was not designed in Malmo by Celsius or Kockums and aimed at a ship flying the Norwegian flag.

It’s not surprising perhaps given the distance between the two societies that there have not been many notable cultural interchanges between Norway and Australia, although Liv Ullmann’s proposed arrival in 2009 may build bridges. This is despite the fact that Australia’s new wave film industry has been as significant as its European counterparts, and Australian directors as talented as their progenitors in Italy, Sweden and France. Cate Blanchett is only one of many Australians dominating the box office successes of the present era, and standing in line for their Academy Awards.

So ‘hands off Ibsen’ would have been a prudent catch cry. To undertake a production of Ibsen took more talent than could be found in the antipodes, a country where over- confidence went hand in hand with disastrous endings in more fields than theatre. Take a look at the film Gallipoli. A typical botched effort was the film making adventure last century when Liv Ullmann was one of the two celebrated foreign stars who performed in an ill fated Australian shoot of The Wild Duck. Liv Ullmann, Ingmar Bergman’s favorite for a time, added a sliver of Nordic interest to a film overloaded with Australian talent: Arthur Dignam, Michael Pate and John Meillon. Ullmann was joined by Jeremy Irons for the Australian production which demanded of its creators an Australian setting. Maybe for tax reason? In any event, Ibsen was relocated to Sydney during the fin de siecle era. Australia then had a higher standard of living than Norway. Norway was a backward country with a poor, diseased and alcoholic rural population, smarting under the Swedish monarchy, the Norwegian flag looking like of a sort of Union Jack. It comprised a Swedish flag with a Norwegian one in the corner. This ought to have raised sympathy in Canberra. Around the world the Southern Cross is routinely taken for a reference to New Zealand, and the overwhelmingly prominent British Flag under which Australian Olympic victors sing their curious national anthem leaves no doubt that Australia prefers to be a constitutional monarchy with a Foreign Sovereign. The Australian flag is just one complaint of the Australian republican movements, in this respected, as in economic performance, the Nowegians having recently shot ahead. No longer is Swedish King Oscar a cuckoo chief of state for Norway, but Queen Elizabeth 11 of England is still the Queen of Australia.

Liv Ullmann’s Wild Duck gave its audiences 96 minutes of squirming when it was first shown in 1983.Leonard Maltin, teacher at the University of Southern California, contributor to OUP’s Dictionary of American Biography is a don and a film buff who knows everything there is to know about films with subject matter ranging from Wild Strawberries to Wild Ducks. Maltin rightfully rubbished the Ullmann-Irons effort, commenting that it was absurd to change the Norwegian names to presumed English equivalents.

Dreary, disappointing adoption of an Ibsen play centering on two days in the lives of the Ackland (anglicized from “Ekdal”) family members and updating the story by twenty-odd years. The question is: Why? Performances are OK but it’s oh so slow and pretentious.

The twenty-first century Australian actors were fast and pretentious. They struggled with their version of Hedda Gabbler and worked well as a team at rehearsals and on the stage, trying and more of less succeeding in preventing the overwhelming star quality of Cate Blanchett stealing the show. But at an intellectual level, there was too much gung-ho in the Australian approach to what Ibsen thought about when he sat down to write. For Ibsen, writing was about his personal financial reward, figures in a bankbook. He knew that it was a rich man’s world, and for most of his youth he was poor. The Australian cast ignored the differences between Ibsen’s many plays, saw his lines as a script, and at times it seemed that they were playing A Dolls House not Hedda Gabbler, and that Nora’s characteristics( somewhat reminiscent of the two principals in Bergman’s Persona) had merged with Hedda’s. There was even a small run of dialogue delivered as if by Miss Julie, giving the strong impression that the cast not only could not distinguish between one Ibsen play and another, but confused Ibsen with Strindberg.

At the heart of the problem is the difficulty of communicating in Norway, in Norwegian with Nowegians. Even the Norwegians feel this. Geographic determinism made Norway as a country a land of small disconnected villages full of small disconnected minds, obsessed with Norway and nothing else. That is why Norwegians did not join the European Union and how they were able to keep most the German Army stationed in Norway terrorised during world war two. The Norwegian word for enemy is fiend. In Norway it’s taken literally, and most Norwegians have little difficulty spotting their enemy the moment they leave their own stunningly beautiful country. A small example: to get around the villages in the Utne Fjord and the Sogne Fiord by track took a very long time in the nineteenth century. Boat traffic in and out of the viks was the only was to travel. No travel, no meetings. The Nowegians when they did get together in groups larger than 10 spoke a hybrid of Germano- Swedish and Danish. A class element made the language question worse, and as Norway drifted towards independence from Sweden, a battle between the classes favoring Norway for the Norwegian, and those wanting to keep alive the Danish connection centered on the questions of orthography, spelling, grammar and accent, with the mandarins speaking dano Norwegian, and the rest getting by sounding like Yorkshire farmers. One wit quipped that the rules for deciding correct pronunciation were made by Eliza Doolittle not Henry Higgins in Norway.

It is now the brief of Andrew Upton and Cate Blanchett as partners and artistic directors of the STC to make more money and bring in bigger audiences shoving the STC beyond the parochial footpaths of Sydney and into the footlights of world drama. The couple has started well, having discussions with Harold Panter, creative director of the Ambassador Theater Group who has seen West End potential in plays from Belvoir Street. Panter considered Pinter a possibility (yes it’s true) and thought about putting on a Norwegian play of great obscurity Elling.

More important to the STC in the long term probably has been their successful entrepreneurial attack, roping in Giorgio Armani and the watch company IWC Schaffausen, and signing up Liv Ullmann to direct Blanchett in Tennessee William’s A Streetcar Named Desire at the STC in 2009. Blanchett is to play Blanche du Bois. Upton and Blanchett cooed together that having artists of Liv Ullmann’s revelatory and exacting vision at the helm of the STC in “one of the greatest plays of the 20th century” would be wonderful. Hopefully Blanche du Bois will efface Hedda Gabbler - and what is good for the purveyors of solid gold 18 carat dress watches, and stylish suits, proves good for Sydney even if they don’t know their Svalbard from their Spitzbergen.