Knut Hamsun’s “Mysterious” Personality

 More than 100 years have passed since Knut Hamsun wrote his most puzzling novel “Mysteries”. Today on the scene of The National theater of Oslo the story appears still passionate and fresh.

This work is not as well-known abroad as Hamsun’s other novels “Hunger”, “Victoria” and “Pan”. “Mysteries” tells us about an eccentric, strange man who arrived once in a small Norwegian coastal town, committed random acts of kindness and behaved weirdly in many ways, only to disappear as suddenly as he turned up. Hamsun writes his novel in a technique which is close to the “stream of consciousness”, long before it became an official genre.

Therefore, it is not an easy task to stage Hamsun’s Mysteries because the majority of events happen in the head of the main character Johan Nilsen Nagel. However, the famous international director Spanish Calixto Bieito manages to turn Nagel’s inner monologue into the active participant. The way Bieito combines the real world and the world of Nagel’s mind is incredible. Insanely brilliant and passionate Nagel appears on the scene as complicated and controversial as even Hamsun could not probably portray him. Jan Gunnar Røise suits his character perfectly. His bird-alike appearance in Nagel’s bright yellow coat clearly demonstrates his alienness to the quiet provincial town. Røise himself thinks that Hamsun describes in the book what happens in our heads so detailed that you become almost embarrassed while reading it. This makes it very interesting and challenging to play, he says.

The international theater- and opera director Bieito is a regular guest at the National Theater. Last time he staged August Strindberg’s “A Dream Play” and Ibsen’s “Brand”. He is known for his expressiveness and even eccentricity. Bieito assumes Hamsun wrote the novel to escape committing suicide, because the novel is very biographical: Hamsun also was hopelessly in love at that time and visited Lillesand, a small town near the sea. The writer managed to sublimate his suffer into the piece of art and save himself with it.

Nagel’s personality and actions are so controversial and illogical that they can be understood neither rationally nor fully. Firstly, he actively engages himself in the life of the small town, making acquaintances with almost all its inhabitants. But after that he destroys all the relationships. On the scene of the National Theater scenograph Rebecca Ringst even builts a giant cube, which represents a brain of Nagel. Thus, all the actions of the play a being put into the space of his mind and are demonstrated from his point of view. With this novel Hamsun probably wanted to say that there are so many different aspects and peculiarities in one person that it is impossible to apply rational methods in order to understand one. “Mysteries” is an existential story of a desperate man in a futile attempt to find the meaning of life. Bieito means that Hamsun actually describes our modern society which is looking so desperately for something to hold onto. And after all the failed attempts, finds the consolation in alcohol and drugs.

Closer to the end of the play it becomes quite difficult to follow the line. The words become indistinguishable, but they do not matter that much. It’s Nagel’s despair that matters. When the words turn into a melody, the meaning behind the lines appear more clearly. We do not understand but we start to feel the emotions Jan Gunnar Røyse and his character try to convey us. Before the book was published Hamsun even went on a lecturing tour to several cities in Norway in order to prepare the readers for his new novel. So it is highly advised to read the novel before going to the theater. Though even that does not garantee total understanding of Hamsun’s thoughts.


By Knut Hamsun

Scenario by Calixto Bieito

Director: Calixto Bieito

Scenography: Rebecca Ringst

Costumes: Kathrine Tolo

Light designer: Reinhard Traub

Cast: Jan Gunnar Røise, Jan Sælid, Andrea Bræin Hovig, Heidi Goldmann, Håkon Ramstad, Anne Krigsvoll, Ellen Horn, Per Christian Ellefsen, Marian Saastad Ottesen, Mariann Hole and others.

See the calendar and availability of tickets for the play from Nationaltheater.

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