Amsterdam is a long way from Vietnam, where the Oslo-based Verdensteatret cross-artform ensemble revisited after ten years to create HANNAH, their playfully elliptical fusion of watery-looking visuals, kinetic sculptures and 1950s cartoon-style soundscapes they bring to Glasgow next week. The two performances of HANNAH will form part of the fifth edition of Sonica, the Cryptic company’s annual showcase of international visual/sonic artworks.
Back in February, however, the morning after the first performances of the show at the Sonic Acts festival that tales place mainly at the Stedelijk Museum of contemporary design, the company is feeling the effects of what appears to have been a pre-Scotland research trip into a Dutch whisky bar. This hasn’t stopped four of them meeting for coffee outside the museum’s twenty-first century Benthem Crouwel Wing, a vast building in Museum Square which opened in 2010.
The cross-generation ensemble who make up the membership of Verdensteatret – it translates as Theatre of the World - do things together like this. It’s all for the experience. That’s how they make work like HANNAH, the palindrome of its title suggesting a journey that arrives at the same place, whichever direction you’re coming from. While the company resist any kind of literal interpretation of the work, it seems to suggest the tectonic shifts in a landscape, with video projections of high rise blocks pointing to more constructed environmental interventions currently tearing up cities across the globe.
“We’ve done a lot of research journeys over the years to different places all over the world,” says the company’s co-founder and longest serving member Asle Nilsen, “and we thought, what if we tried to do exactly the same trip we did ten years ago, and see if this repetition has something to offer us. We did this without any more specific plans than that, just to see what happens when you repeat something after ten years. So, on the one hand, it’s the same place, it’s different because ten years have passed.”
The original trip to Vietnam was to research the show that became Louder, which was first seen in 2007. This was a large-scale orchestral piece that used megaphones and a mechanical puppet play to explore the unfamiliar terrain that inspired it. While Nilsen and company producer Elisabeth Carmen Gmeiner made that trip, only they and one or two others are still with the company. For Niklas Adam and Janne Kruse, who joined later, and who both perform in HANNAH, their first trip to Vietnam was full of baggage not of their making.
“We’ve always heard so much about it,” says Adam. “Stories about the whole experience, and what they did and how it turned out, so it felt like something that was part of our common reference, even though we didn’t go the first time.”
And did it live up to expectations?
“No,’ says Kruse. “I don’t think so. But not in a bad way.”
“It’s a mythical place,” says Nilsen, “and you have these fantasies about it, but maybe it’s not so wild as you imagine. There are big cities all over the delta, and it was rougher ten years ago. Now, there is more tourism, and the city has around one million more people in it now than ten years ago. It’s growing very fast.”
Verdensteatret’s evolution has been more gradual. The company was formed in Bergen by Nilsen with Norwegian performance artist Lisbeth J. Bodd in 1986 with a more recognisably straight-forward theatrical approach.
“We developed the whole group,” says Nilsen of his late co-founder, who passed away in 2014. “It started in a circus tent, touring Scandinavia in a large old bus. After four or five years in the tent, we started to do work indoors for the first time, and the works became more abstract, and more strange, so that company disappeared, and another crowd became interested, and slowly it moved into the art world. The first shows were more for the family, with circus acts, but its changed slowly over the years. We have been into very text based work, more theatrical pieces, dance and choreography, and then the last ten years maybe, its more about visual art and sound art. The people too are also changing, and are from different artistic professions, so that’s also a part of this ongoing change.”
This year’s Sonica features forty events over its eleven-day duration, with highlights including Turner Prize nominated sonic explorer Luke Fowler performing with hand-built instruments in Hamilton Mausoleum. For Verdensteatret’s first trip to Scotland, the journey is as important as the performance.
“No matter where we go on our research journey,” says Nilsen, “maybe the most important thing is to just do something together, to have a common experience, because that’s gives us more access to a common language. We store things in the sub-conscious, and over the long working process it eventually seeps. It’s partly about trying to reconstruct a memory, and finding out how to translate something like that memory of a common landscape into an artistic language.”
Going by the Amsterdam shows, HANNAH is also hugely entertaining.
“It’s accessible and demanding at the same time,” says Gmeiner.
“The line I’ve heard the most,” says Adam, “is ‘I don’t understand anything, but I love it’.”
Where is HANNAH likely to take Verdensteatret next? Will they make a further pilgrimage to Vietnam in another ten years?
“That’s probably enough now,” says Nilsen. “There are so many places. It’s not so important where it is. It could be at the roadside where you live. Every little place is interesting. It’s mainly that you do it at the same time. To be in the same landscape together, it’s an experience.”
Could the company feed off the Glasgow landscape and make into a new work, perhaps?
“Anywhere,” he says.
HANNAH can be seen at Tramway, Glasgow on November 7 at 7pm and 9pm as part of Sonica 2019, which runs at various Glasgow venues from October 31-November 10.
The Herald, October 31st 2019