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Bendik Riis: a Lifelong Journey Home

The Theater of Cruelty (Grusomhetens teater) draws the subtle line between the world of dreams and the dark reality in its new play “What a glorious day!”
Bendik Riis: a Lifelong Journey Home
Photo: Webverket.no

Why do many people that we admire today suffered so much in their lives to make their art come through? Who really has the right to decide what is acceptable and what is not? We say “he was ahead of his time”, which is supposed to explain why he was put into mental health institution. Were these people really insane or was it the society of that time that was insane? And who sit in such “prisons” now?

These and other questions inspired the director of the Theater of Cruelty Lars Øyno to reflect in his new play “What a glorious day!” on how and why mental illness and life inside a dream can often result in artistic enlightenment.

After only three performances in Oslo (March, 10-12) the theater is going to show this play during the Ashirward International Theater Festival in India. In anticipation of this event we’ve discussed the play with director Lars Øyno, producer Brendan McCall, who also plays one of the key roles, and Ivar Örn Sverrisson, playing the main character, Bendik Riis.

-Lars, whose “glorious day” are we going to see?

-(Lars Øyno) This play is about very original modern Norwegian painter Bendik Riis. He had a difficult life. It took many years before he was officially recognized as an artist. He was often mentally ill and spent almost 30 years in mental health facilities. In some of his artworks he pictured the life in this institutions, full of horrible doctors, who still have the power of life and death, and their torture. But he was also very optimistic, he wanted to fight for peace during the second world war and went to demonstrate dressed as a “profet”. He was a pre-John Lennon.

-Why did he become “insane”?

-(L.Ø.) When he was 16, he came from school one day and found all the family’s belongings lying on the grass in front of the house. The family could not afford to pay the rent and was thrown away from home by the police. This influenced him and his sister a lot. And for the rest of his life through his art he was searching for the lost home. He was separated from his sister. He became very sensitive. In the play we describe the way in his own mind from that dark situation and torture towards a harmonic life with home and parents and relatives around him.

-Isn’t “glorious day” a sarcastic title for such a play?

-(Brendan McCall)  “What a Glorious day!” is not a portrait of Bendik Riis’s life in the literal sense. The title is not sarcastic, it’s sincere. It’s an ideal, a dream that he was heading towards. It’s not cynical. In a way it’s revolutionary to be innocent, naive and positive, because it’s easier to be cynical and bitter. You have so many examples and reasons to be that way.

-(L.Ø.) For me it is important to not only describe his sufferings, but the harmonic, happy family life he was longing for and never had. In our lives it’s important to go through some dark situations, but to struggle for the enlightenment. In this theater we do not fascinate the dark issues, it is not important for the artist. Vincent van Gogh suffered a lot, but he did not paint in dark colours. On the contrary, he had exaggerated yellow on his cornfields in the sunshine. It’s something like that here. For example, we have the birthday, the 17th of May and Christmas Eve at the same time in the play. If we present three happiest moments simultaneously, how can the evil come through? In his paintings Bendik Riis used this kind of artistic images to keep the evil away from himself. These were his hidden weapons. And I try to make a sort of theater that have the same intention to swap the darkness away. 

-Now I want to know how it feels to be an actor in the Theater of Cruelty, what kind of challenges do you meet, Brendan and Ivar?

-(B.M.) This is my only second time working with Lars as an actor. I am the producer of the Theater of Cruelty. This play is very abstract, the communication go mainly through movement. There is something you cannot touch, but you sense it, you feel. As for the audience, I think it engages you differently than the traditional theater. I think that the language tends to possibly limit us. With the movements you can have multiple meanings at the same time. The play is very structured and detailed, but when you know this structure, you also have a lot of freedom within it. 

-(Ivar Örn Sverrisson) Everything that happens on the stage is in Bendik Riis’s head, it’s his memories. We go to these insanely intense kinds of images of his life where he tries to imagine how he wants it to be. We don’t try to be insane, we try to be honest.

-How do you think the play will be accepted in India?

-(L.Ø.) In India people are very occupied with harmony, home and family.

-(B.M.) “What a Glorious day!” possesses a lot of themes about home and family that are very spesific to Norway, at least there is a lot of classic iconic images of Nordic celebration and Nordic homelife. Bendik Riis was national romantic. But like in everything what Lars does, there is not one possible read. In India people will pick up on something universal. 

-(L.Ø.) Theater people in India are very hungry for modern plays, because their theater is very conventional and traditional. They are very seldom allowed to do experimental theater. That is why they are happy to receive this modern play. We’ve been to India several times before. We were not allowed to be naked on the stage. But once, with “Siste Sang” it passed through and, luckily, we were not arrested.

“What a glorious day!” is a play where the concepts of normality and insanety are reconsidered. It’s the way through the darkness to the light, to the best memories of our childhood and to the essential human values.

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