A Christmas Night’s Dream coming true at Norway’s National Theater
Oslo is decorated in its finest splendor, with a large luminous Ferris wheel in front of the National Theater, where we, three generations, are on our way to see En julenattsdrøm – A Christmas Night’s Dream.
For a moment, one would think that reality competed with the intricacies of the Christmas show. En julenattsdrøm—A Christmas Night’s Dream—was first threatened by COVID-19, then the premiere was postponed one month because of a Norwegian cultural workers’ strike, a seven-week labor dispute over pension plans. But as in fairy tales, the end was a happy one, and observant theatergoers noticed that the show included references to the strike in its dialogue.
A Christmas Night’s Dream is most of all a family show during the holiday season, presented in the capital’s most beautiful theater, Nationaltheatret, Norway’s National Theater, one of three main stages for theater art in Oslo.
Everyone remembers the bubbling expectations we had as children. Back then, we already felt anticipation growing as our finest clothes were being ironed before heading to the theater. We knew that there was a new, exciting experience ahead of us.
And this new play does not disappointment young or old. A Christmas Night’s Dream is described as heartwarming, entertaining and a fun Christmas story for young and old, with magnificent scenography and lighting, fantastic costumes, and seven musicians on stage trying to satisfy the expectations of theater guests.
“The show has come to life at a time when everyone has felt the absence of being together,” said director and playwright Mads Bones. “We have written this now at a time when we have experienced an absence of the theater, so this show is a declaration of love for the theater as an art form, for the moment, for the play, for the unpredictable, the surprising and the immediate. There is no place in the world that suits this better than the National Theater. A Christmas Night’s Dream is tailored for that room,” he said.
A national treasure
The venerable National Theater was also dressed for the occasion, in red velvet and gold. In the audience foyer, excited families were waiting for the doors to open to the neo-rococo interior from 1899, designed by architect Henrik Bull. Artist Lars Utne was responsible for the many sculptures that can be seen around the interior. The chandelier contains 100 lightbulbs and beautiful prisms of opal glass.
It’s interesting to note that Bull even designed a chocolate he called “Lohengrin” for the staging of the opera by the same name in 1911, and today there are attempts to start producing it again. The theater was officially listed as a cultural heritage site by the Norwegian state in 1983.
The National Theater’s first director was Bjørn Bjørnson, son of the famous writer Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, the man behind the lyrics to Norway’s national anthem, “Ja, vi elsker.” He was awarded the 1903 Nobel Prize in Literature “as a tribute to his noble, magnificent, and versatile poetry.” In these hallways, both Bjørnson and his contemporary Henrik Ibsen walked—and today, you can see them on the walls.
Hovedscenen (the Main Stage), where the A Christmas Night’s Dream awaits during this year’s holiday season, has room for 741 spectators and is the country’s largest and oldest stage. While we sit and admire the ceiling paintings by Eivind Nielsen with their theme of a dramatic battle between the light and dark powers, it is inevitable to think about the drama that takes place within these walls all year round: the decay of the building.
Nationaltheatret was completed in 1899 and has not undergone significant modernization since. Technically speaking, the theater is in a critical state, but the upside is that a preliminary project has finally been initiated, which lays the foundation for a restoration project to start in 2022.
A declaration of love
Above all, A Christmas Night’s Dream is a declaration of love for the theater and the many professional groups who work there.
The directors of the show, Bones and composer Kyrre Havdal, have long careers as creative partners. From Trøndelag Theater, they have had audience successes, including The Nutcracker and Robin Hood, and in 2019, they made headlines with Alice in Wonderland at the National Theater. Havdal is a trained classical pianist and works as a pianist, composer, and orchestra leader. The two asked, “Is Christmas the presence of snow? Santa? Or is it something entirely different?”
“Christmas itself is a traditional holiday,” Havdal added. “Many people associate it with certain things. But should one always meet expectations, or should one challenge them?”
Granted, the “Christmas mood” is a difficult feeling to define—even outside the theater. In this context, the two directors nevertheless reached a conclusion: “We want an adventure.”
“We don’t deny ourselves anything in terms of musicality, language, thoughts about gender and race. We live in the year 2021, and we will make a story suitable of 2021. We just placed it in 1890, because we believe it to be colorful, and we like the aesthetics,” Bones said.
Both Bones and Havdal wanted theatergoers to be filled with the intoxicating feeling of a Christmas holiday when they leave the theater.
The red stage curtain opens
In the play, the actors are talking among themselves and decide to start their play with a happy ending. But very soon, the theater director lies dead on the floor, and the complications set in.
The theater director’s daughter in the play, Johanne Oskarsdatter (played by Monica Dybwad, known to many from her roles in Home for Christmas and Aber Bergen), grew up on and around the stage in a theater she loves, but when her father dies, everything changes. Johanne’s stepmother, the diva Ludvikke De Luxe, takes over the management of the theater. Now, only tragedies are performed with the wicked stepmother in the leading role. Johanne is demoted to cleaning up the theater. But the theater needs a prince.
“Do we have someone in the audience who would like to play the prince?” is heard from the stage.
The spotlights are cast out over the audience, and some raise their hands. I noticed the 9-year-old in my company immediately raising her hand, but we were sitting on the balcony, high above the stage, and soon noticed a young man being chosen.
“He looks nervous,” our 9-year-old commented, but we, the grownups, were satisfied that the theater magic, the make-believe, was still working.
In the play, as the big Christmas show is coming up, Johanne sees her opportunity: Can she, through the art of dressing up, once again get a chance to shine in the spotlight and at the same time save the theater from the economic and artistic ruin imposed on it by her stepmother? As the audience, we ask ourselves whether the story is layered to also be about the present state of the theater?
This is where the 9-year-old girl recognized themes from Tre nøtter for Askepott—Three Wishes for Cinderella—the beloved Czech film classic shown on Norwegian television each year, which has now been remade into a Norwegian-language film.
“Look, they change costumes on stage! In the movie they just change by magic!” she said.
The singing voices of the actors in A Christmas Night’s Dream are wonderful, Monica Dybwad’s voice in particular. The small orchestra on stage is a treasure, albeit hidden at times, but works very well under Havdal’s leadership. Scenography and lighting design create a magical theater with constant movement and a lot of threads to untangle.
“One of the mantras in the show is that things can never be too much. More, more, more! More colors, more music, more light more snow, more love, more lust, more desire. If it is scary, it is going to be scarier. If it is sad, it must be sadder,” Bones says.
In the middle of the two-hour play with a 15-minute break, an avantgarde-like couple appears and suddenly takes over the director’s task in the performance. The story-within-a-story takes A Christmas Night’s Dream into a discussion about what art for children should really be. Whereas some plays are safe, this performance goes straight into comedy for children, with a bit of toilet humor. The one who laughed the loudest was a lady in her 70s right behind us, along with the children.
“The funniest? The man who disappeared into the big toilet,” says our 9-year-old.
As she had raised her hand to play the prince, it
probably did not occur to her that the frog, who turns out to be a real prince, has fallen in love with the one we are supposed to believe is a prince. When the frog is a real prince, in love with a prince, and the prince in the play turns out to be Johanne, the prince says, “But it doesn’t matter.” In this sense the play is modern.
Was I emotionally touched by this play? No. But then I might have lost the child’s gaze. But the fact is that the actors got standing ovations.
The real-life story: A Christmas Night’s Dream coming true
When the National Theater opened on Sept.1, 1899, it was celebrated for three days with a number of cultural personalities and political leaders present. Private funds were needed to build the theater, and it was not until 1928 that government subsidies were offered. The public monies increased slowly over the years, and by 1975, these subsidies accounted for more than 90%. Yet, the need for a complete rehabilitation of the dilapidated building is a consequence of the lack of major allocations for maintenance highly necessary.
As a result, in 2022, the construction project to renovate the theater is set to begin and finally A
Christmas Night’s Dream will come true. (But the character of Margot Myntekrohne, brilliantly portrayed by the award-winning actor Anne Kringsvoll in the play, should stay away, because theater accounting was not her strong point!) In the meantime, if one wants a real-life tour behind the physical scenes of the play, it is possible to join a tour inside the theater until Dec. 18 to learn more.
As we left the theater, the Ferris wheel had stopped. Only the lights were on, and the trees are all dressed up in Christmas lights. Our 9-year-old disregarded the fact that the time was already 9:30 p.m. She wanted to take in the Christmas magic: the 131-foot tall Ferris wheel and thousands of LED lights that formed a starry sky, a unique lighting installation that extends from the National Theater along Stortingsgata and down toward Eidsvoll Plass.
“I am looking forward to seeing Tre nøtter for Askepott at the movies,” she said. This magnificent Norwegian remake of an annual national tradition offers scenery no less breathtaking than that at Nationaltheatret, with the breathtaking Norwegian mountains offering another dose of magic. Astrid Smeplass (popstar Astrid S) makes her debut in the lead role as Cinderella in this new feature film described by the Norwegian web portal Film Police as “adventurous and epic,” another Christmas night’s dream to look forward to.
To learn more about Nationaltheatret and En julenattsdrøm, visit nationaltheatret.no/forestillinger/en-julenattsdrom (in Norwegian).
This article originally appeared in the Dec. 17, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.