Reading Manifesto 2083: An Interview with Anders Falstie-Jensen

ARTS, Features, Interviews, Theatre & Performing Arts
img_manifesto2083The controversial Danish play on Norwegian extremist Anders Breivik comes to Auckland’s Basement Theatre.

“I wanted to know all about him. How does he speak? How does he dance? How does he laugh? Could he forget himself when he was in company? Did he have any friends? Yes, he did.”

Written by Christian Lollike, Olaf Højgaard, and Tanja Diers, Manifesto 2083 is a direct response to the incident where extremist Anders Breivik killed 69 people on the island of Utøya and detonated a bomb outside the Norwegian parliament.

The show will be performed entirely by Edwin Wright as an actor grappling with the role of, and becoming, Anders Breivik. It’s a highly intimate text, forcing us to observe an extremist up close and personal, pushing the limits of our empathy, sometimes to a fault. The script is confrontational, to say the least, and it doesn’t make for easy viewing, but that’s the beauty of it. In a climate where the average piece of theatre has little ambition to tackle real-life horrors, audiences will find something unique here. A politically-charged piece of writing that refuses to be anything less than thought-provoking. This is essential viewing for anyone interested in the conversation started by Silo Theatre’s The Events which was inspired by the same source material.

It originally premiered on October 15, 2012, in Copenhagen to a mixed reception because of its subject matter rather than the play itself. Danish-born director Anders Falstie-Jensen, best known for his theatre company The Rebel Alliance (Standstill, Yours Truly) and recent co-winner of the Playmarket ADAM award, is bringing the controversial play to Auckland audiences at The Basement Theatre later this month.

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NATHAN JOE: So what was it that drew you to Manifesto 2083 initially?

ANDERS FALSTIE-JENSEN: It’s probably the most talked about Danish play in recent Danish theatre history. So I was really interested in that, and I’m a big fan of Christian Lollike, one of the writers of the piece. I had followed it when it came on and was curious about it. When I directed the reading of it at Auckland Theatre Company, that put me in contact with the company in Denmark. And then, once I had that contact, I asked if I could get the rights to perform it. It’s a really brave piece to put on and theatrically quite interesting.

NJ: It’s very direct, isn’t it?

AFJ: Yeah it’s really full on. It;s interesting how a play like that works in one context in Denmark where it’s very difficult and very controversial, and moving it to a New Zealand context where people go, “I don’t know who Anders Breivik is. Who is that guy?” And tell that story. In Denmark it is very much about that event and about him. But in a New Zealand context it becomes about something slightly different. For me, it becomes about how a lone wolf comes about, how you get radicalised.

NJ: I found that when I was reading the script—the process of the author of the script or the performer trying to take on the traits, and the transformation to become Breivik. You’re watching the journey of the actor becoming the role he’s playing and it parallels the journey of, I suppose, Breivik himself—the transformation to becoming, as you say, a lone wolf to a radical.

AFJ: The interesting thing is Olaf [the character], in the play, is the real actor. So the actor who performed it in Denmark was telling his own story. So he did isolate himself in his apartment and he went through those steps and went through that realizing, “if all I read and all I see every day is the right-wing thinking…” then all of the sudden he’s like… fuck! Suddenly he starts seeing the world through their eyes.

NJ: When you read it, you find yourself going, “Oh yeah, I can relate to some of these concerns.” If I take certain parts out of context, what he’s saying has a sort of understandability regarding his fear of social conditions. But it’s the wider scheme that you go, “Oh no, this is a bit… dangerous.”

AFJ: It’s that slide from, “I can see where that’s coming from,” to “the Knights of Templars.” Whoa, and then, “massive European civil war already happening right now.” But it’s quite a subtle jump. I can see where he’s coming from—that’s the scary thing.

NJ: And are you going to see The Events?

AFJ: Yes.

NJ: That’s fascinating, isn’t it? The play, while not a direct response to the same incident, is inspired by it. So, in a [weird] way, your play is the story from the other side. Where The Events is from the victim’s point-of-view predominately, Manifesto 2083 is from the perpetrator’s. Did that have anything to do with you wanting to produce it?

AFJ: No, it’s a complete coincidence. It’s completely random. The other day when we were rehearsing, there’s a part in Manifesto 2083 where they talk about Breivik’s childhood and they keep talking about the boy, the boy, the boy, the boy. And in The Events it is The Boy that is Beulah [Koael]’s character. So yeah, I can’t wait to see it.

NJ: I think it’ll be very interesting for audiences who go to see The Events and then see Manifesto 2083. Because the former does raise all these questions and while Manifesto doesn’t answer them, it does ask a bunch more. It’s this ongoing conversation about why and how it happened.

AFJ: What I’m really excited about The Events is, and this one as well, is how you see two writers who are at the top of their game approaching the same thing in completely different ways. And I think that’s a great opportunity.

NJ: Is this the first work by the playwright [Christian Lollike] that will be premiering in New Zealand?

AFJ: Yes.

NJ: It’s a translation, so how much do you know that it differs from the original? Or is it quite direct?

AFJ: I’ve got a copy of the Danish script as well, so I can compare them. But it’s pretty accurate. There are some minor things where the wording could be slightly different.

NJ: And for you, in terms of the original production versus what you’re doing with it, are you trying to do anything new or are you just trying to do it straight?

AFJ: What I like about the script is it’s open to interpretation. I didn’t see the Danish version. It was on while I was in Denmark but it was sold out. I was waiting outside the theatre and then went home. But they used a lot of AV and we have no budget; there’s a whiteboard which is quite cool. We keep talking about it as a sort of low-fi TED talk. The other thing is, just from when I directed the reading, our concept has changed quite a bit. In a way it’s quite inspired by Beckett and Krapp’s Last Tape, so at one point he uses a dictaphone and he, the actor, listens to his thoughts from previous diary entries and he’s putting up the pictures of all his research on the wall. So I guess it’s more poor theatre, and quite different from the Danish version.

NJ: And the actor. Is it the same actor you had in the reading?

AFJ: No, it’s a different actor. It was Jonny Moffat that performed in the reading.

NJ: How did you and Edwin [Wright] come together to work on this project?

AFJ: It was difficult to cast because the rehearsal period was very short and there is a lot of text to learn. It’s a big show to take on. I reached a point where I was out of ideas. And then Gabrielle [Vincent] said, “Why don’t you just ask Edwin?” So I asked him and we kind of had a blind date because I’ve never met him before. I was like, “hey, do you want to do this crazy project and hang out with me in a room for quite a long time?” But we got along really well and he was into it. He had a hole in his schedule, so he was like, “sure, let’s do a little intensive play at The Basement.” That was how that came about.

NJ: Even though it’s a translation, it’s not a very Kiwi play in any sense. A lot of the references are Norwegian and culturally and politically specific to that context. So do you think New Zealand audiences will find that difficult to connect with?

AFJ: No, not really. I think the event itself is so horrific that people will either know about it or will have heard about it. And there’s so much going on in Europe anyway that people get what the play is talking about. It’s about the slow and steady shift to the extreme right in Europe. In our world, I guess, global news is local news.

NJ: In terms of the initial controversy the play had when it was first produced, we don’t have the same connection with what happened. Do you think audiences will actually be able to appreciate the text and the play a bit better?

AFJ: I think so. It was very on the nose when they did it. Months after the shooting they declared they were going to do a play about it. It got so heated, it was just crazy. Members of the parliament would write opinion pieces saying how outrageous it was. And it happened in a 60-seat theatre. No one even knew what the play was about exactly, it was just the fact that they were doing a play about it. I’m just speculating, but maybe it’s that whole thing about how theatre is meant to be a form of entertainment and as soon as you go into dealing with tough, current events, then it should be news and media dealing with it. It shouldn’t be handled in a theatrical form. Whereas Lollike’s point is that theatre is actually an amazing forum to deal with issues like that. If I read an article, it takes me five minutes, and right after I click on something else. Whereas here, when you go and see a play, you engage with it for an hour in a really intense way with other people. It affects you and gives a different insight.

NJ: Even while I was reading the play I felt quite complicit in everything he was doing and saying. I’m participating in this journey, which is an uncomfortable thing.

AFJ: He was a Norwegian. There’s this amazing book One of Us—it’s that he wasn’t just this random dude who flew in from somewhere else. He grew up there, he came from us, this guy who did this horrific thing. And that’s a really difficult thing to engage with and comprehend.

img_manifesto2083-2NJ: There’s a bit near the end of the play where they try to diagnose him or simplify what he’s done by calling it a mental illness and The Events has similar moment. And I think for a lot of people that’s the way to deal with violence. They try to pigeonhole–

AFJ: He has to be a madman–

NJ: Otherwise it’s just not logical.

AFJ: And that’s what is the really horrific thing. He had psychotic traits and he was a narcissist. But he wasn’t clinically… they didn’t think insane at the moment of the crime. Okay, so then it was actually a sane person that did this. Which is…

NJ: Scary.

AFJ: That is really scary.

NJ: As a theatre-maker, do you consider yourself predominately as a director? As, this year, you also co-won the [Playmarket] ADAM Award for Centrepoint. So as a theatre-maker, how do you define yourself?

AFJ: I don’t know what I’m doing, man.

NJ: [laughs]

AFJ: I love to direct. I think over ten years I’ve done like six plays. People never ask me to direct; I always have to produce what I want to direct myself. But I don’t really know what I see myself as.

NJ: I’ve noticed a lot of Auckland-based theatre-makers, they tend not to be able to define themselves in one role, because they’re forced to do multiple. They’re forced to produce, they’re forced to write, they’re forced to act. And it becomes a thing where they’re jack-of-all-trades.

AFK: That’s what I, for better or worse, ended up doing. If I had the chance I’d love to just be able to direct or write. That’s what I prefer to do. But that hasn’t panned out that way.

NJ: And is that why you started The Rebel Alliance in the first place? As an avenue to do that?

AFK: Yeah. At the time, it was the only way to put on our own stuff. Because when you’re straight out of university, no one is going to pick up your show. I was just going to do it myself.

NJ: And are there any other upcoming projects after Manifesto for The Rebel Alliance?

AFK: I’m working on writing a new show which is in its really early stages. I don’t know if that would happen next year. Might be 2017. So this whole thing of doing a script that is already done is quite exciting. “Oh, half the work is already done.” It’s outrageous. And that’s partly why it’s taken so long between shows, because I’ve usually had to write the damned things. I guess it depends if the right thing crops up. Because I’m really picky. I’m picky but also I have to be really careful with my time with family. So if it’s a show I’m going to put a lot of time into, I just need to be sure I’m really into it.

NJ: Is there anything in particular you want audiences to take away from the show after they see it?

AFK: I hope it’ll give people a sense of how radicalisation works and how easy it is. I think there’s something really interesting in it about the way we build up our view of the world. For instance, Breivik had this specific view of the world that was informed by everything he read all day. And, in a way, I’m doing the same thing when I look at my Facebook page; everybody thinks the same thing as me. So I live in this bubble. I select what I want to read. Everything I read and engage with, in a way, is within my view of the world. So when you encounter someone who goes, “Actually all the Asians, they just need to get out of the country,” you go, whoa, where did that come from? None of my 300 [friends] said that. Well, actually, there’s a whole lot of people that have ideas like that. So, how do you engage with people like that? I find that interesting. And the other thing is the language of the rightwing. Like how in the play he talks about political correctness as the enemy. And how you can see that kind of language being used to some extent by mainstream politicians. That’s kind of the way into their thinking.

NJ: Exactly. Language is this powerful tool for manipulation. He says he’s against political correctness, multiculturalism, and he’s all for assimilation. There’s that whole section about assimilation, and he lists his terms and conditions and rules. That for me was the big moment reading the play. Somehow through all the subtle points he’s gone onto this trajectory.

AFK: Yeah, that’s the end point. He says, “We need to demolish all the mosques and you are only allowed two kids.” So the play has made me more aware of the language that is used in politics and the public forum.

NJ: Have many of his plays been translated into English?

AFK: I’m not sure. They’ve been performed a lot in Scandinavia and Germany. The reason it is translated is because it toured Europe. So when it was performed in Norway, I suspect it was probably performed in English. But Lollike is an amazing artist. He runs this tiny theatre, but he also did this collaboration with the royal ballet in Denmark with Danish veterans who had lost their limbs. It was a ballet about Afghanistan with these war veterans without legs and arms, and these amazing ballet dancers. Some people think it’s controversial, but he really wants to do theatre about right now. Not just stuff about what’s happened five years ago. And he’s not afraid to take the fight, which is impressive. You don’t see much of that.

NJ: Like political theatre.

AFK: Yeah. I don’t think of [this play] as particularly left or right leaning. He’s not saying “this is what you should think.” For me, it comes across as “this is what some people think and what do you guys make of that?” And that’s interesting. It’s very much the kind of play you want to talk to someone about after.

NJ: You want to be able to reply. It’s like when you see in the Herald some sort of article and all the comments. Theatre becomes a forum for that, but actually so much more substantial because it becomes personal. Whereas news has that depersonalising element to it.

AFK: That’s bang on the money.

NJ: It’s like what you were saying before, it becomes part of your feed, you’re scrolling past it, you’re looking at a horrible event one second and you close the tab and you’re looking at top ten restaurants in Auckland.

AFK: But it’s quite confrontational when Edwin looks at you and says, “Soon the war is coming and it will affect you and it will affect you, and it will personally affect you.” It’s quite intense. Which is awesome.

‘Manifesto 2083’ is on at the Basement Theatre in Auckland from September 29-October 3.