Isle Of Dogs: How Ottisdotter is bringing Henrik Ibsen’s Lady Inger to The Space

Specialists in lesser-known works are set to perform the playwright’s most brutal work

Mark Ewbank, joint artistic director of Ottisdotter

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The Space arts centre on the Isle Of Dogs is gearing up for 10 performances of a rarely seen work by Henrik Ibsen.

Specialising in lesser known and obscure plays that feature the oppression and subversion of women in society, theatre company Ottisdotter is set to present Lady Inger as June turns into July. 

“It’s by the second most performed playwright in the world after Shakespeare, but Ibsen is most famous for his last 12 works,” said Mark Ewbank, joint artistic director of the company.

“He actually wrote 26 and for a decade we have been exploring his earlier canon – the pieces he wrote while he was developing as a playwright.

“Lady Inger is fascinating because it is based on the history of Norway and people who actually existed.

“Ibsen took some liberties with the story to make it more dramatic, but in essence it is a medieval epic from the 1500s.

“Lady Inger is trapped between two opposing powers. Norway was a kind of region of Denmark at that time and the Norwegians were subjugated by both Sweden and Denmark.

“Lady Inger herself represents the nearest thing Norway has to a queen but, as it’s a regional province, she’s a bit like Nicola Sturgeon – the head of a devolved nation – and she has to make sure that everybody else is happy.

“Nils Lykke represents Denmark and has come to Norway to make sure Lady Inger is being consistent with what his country would like.

“There are also some Swedish rebels who want Lady Inger to support their cause, so that Norway can become free. In the play, she is really stuck between a rock and a hard place while trying to get the best for her country.

“Ibsen is famous for writing about women and this piece shows a female leader who is trying to do as well as possible for her people.

“The ultimate story of the play – without any spoilers – is that everybody is undermining her and even her own people are sceptical about a woman being up to the job.

“You’ve got Denmark trying to play political games with her – to test her – and Sweden trying to work out if they should support her.

“One of the reasons it’s so rarely put on stage is that this is a medieval epic and most companies don’t want to do one.

“It’s very like Game Of Thrones – quite a big piece to put together.

Kristin Duffy plays the titular Lady Inger in the forthcoming production

“It was the first play Ottisdotter – which takes its name from Lady Inger’s surname – put on back in 2013 and it was a wild success.

“Lots of people are interested in Ibsen and wanted to see it – there was a gap in the market because everyone does The Doll’s House or Hedda Gabler, but not his early works.”

Helping flesh out the story this time round are Kristin Duffy in the titular role and Ivan Comisso as complex antagonist and Danish emissary Nils Lykke.

“Lady Inger is like Hilary Clinton – someone who’s spent her entire life feeling the call to be a leader for her people,” said Kristin, who auditioned for the part after learning about the production via The Space’s newsletter.

“Despite her qualifications for the role, she’s continually brought down by the men around her.

“Like Hilary, Lady Inger gets a reputation as someone who is not always so kind but that’s because she’s constantly beaten down.

“When I saw this role come up, I read the whole script and thought it was such an interesting, three-dimensional character that I wanted to audition.

“The play is written in a way that makes portraying Lady Inger challenging because like all the characters, she is flawed.”

“In the play, I’m very much the underminer,” said Ivan, who appeared in Ottisdotter’s previous show at The Space – Emilia Galotti in 2016 and recently starred in emerging Netflix rugby hit In From The Side.

“You would consider Nils the antagonist but he has his own agenda.

“Denmark is technically the owner of Norway at the time, so as a Dane he’s come in, sniffing out trouble from the Norwegians and the Swedish. He’s there to keep an eye on things.

“He’s a very interesting character. Ibsen portrays a lot of his thought processes and there are a few asides between him and Lady Inger.

“You can see these political titans going head to head and this is one of the main driving forces of the play.

“I always call it a political drama like House Of Cards.

“It’s fun to see these people circle each other – almost as equals, even though Norway is subjugated.

“This is what Ibsen does with women, he portrays incredibly powerful female characters who go head to head with men and convention.”

Ivan Comisso plays antagonist Nils Lykke in Ottisdotter’s Lady Inger

Key to Ottisdotter’s decision to revive the play is its continued resonance despite dealing with events hundreds of years ago.

“It’s exciting to see this play because it could be a contemporary work,” said Mark.

“The play is set in 1528 and Ibsen was writing it in 1855, but you could say the things that happen in it are still happening to this day.

“It demonstrates the theatrical machinations that Ibsen had to go through to show that women are poisoned by society and could only succeed if they were not continually undermined.

“His work represented the birth of realism in the theatre and has that timeless quality to it.

“Every one of his works shows how Ibsen thought society shaped us and how it continues to do that.

“None of his plays needs to be situated in Norway, for example. They could be set anywhere in the world. His focus is on how people interact as human beings. 

“We’re also lucky with the setting. The Norwegian Embassy sent me to Trondheim in 2013 to research our first production so I’ve seen Lady Inger’s castle with its whitewashed walls and ironwork.

“The Space can easily represent a medieval castle so the work and the theatre go together really well. 

“Ibsen plays are generally best when they are presented with minimalist design and we’ll be performing it in the round so the audience really becomes part of the production.

“The actors will be in amongst the audience so they can really feel the energy.

“Without giving anything away, Lady Inger ends with a twist – there’s no happy ever after.

“It’s known as Ibsen’s most brutal play and it’s definitely one for audience members to digest.

“In a way, people have to provide their own ending – nothing is wrapped up in a bow for you and it continues to make people think long after they have seen it.

“It’s such a rich work that, even after all this time when we’re rehearsing it it’s still possible for me and the cast to find new things in the piece. 

“Because we have a cast of such talented actors, they push our understanding of the piece. Come and see it for yourselves.”

  • Lady Inger is set to run at The Space from June 27-July 8, 2023. Performances start at 7.30pm and tickets cost £16. 

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- Jon Massey is co-founder and editorial director of Wharf Life and writes about a wide range of subjects in Canary Wharf, Docklands and east London - contact via jon.massey@wharf-life.com
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