The newest adaptation of Holberg’s play directed by Rasmus Lollike, where madness meets absurdity, is one of the most ludicrous and mind challenging offers on Aarhus 2017’s broad programme celebrating a year of culture.
by Elisabeth Bjerregaard, photos by Emilia Therese
Ludvig Holberg’s ‘Erasmus Montanus’ is perhaps one of the most well-known Danish plays and classic satires. The book is read in most Danish high schools, and the play is frequently performed at theatres throughout Denmark.
I attended the premiere of Aarhus Theatre’s 2017 run of the play on February 10th, thinking I knew what I was in for knowing the story by heart. But I was surprised by a new and spiced-up take on the play, directed by Rasmus Lollike.
The man who came back to flaunt
Holberg’s play is a comedy from the 1700s which, at that time, was pushing the boundaries of theatre. Even now, the comedy lives on. The plot tells the story of Rasmus Bjerg, a simple farmer’s son, who is sent to Copenhagen to study Latin, Rhetoric and Logic. He returns to his simple parents in their small village not as Rasmus Bjerg, but as Monsieur Erasmus Montanus, as he now insists on being called.
Montanus is now a scholar and the fact that his family and the other inhabitants of the village do not speak Latin is of great frustration to his newly intellectual mind. He wants to discuss everything with everybody – including his mother Nille.
One of the most well-known and iconic scenes of the play is when Erasmus turns Nille into a stone. “A stone cannot fly – Nille cannot fly – so Nille must be a stone.” Montanus’ family bursts into a flurry of panic, until Montanus turns Nille back into a person: “Nille can think. A stone can’t think. Therefore Nille is not a stone.”
But the conflicts keep appearing, and when Erasmus meets with his future family in law, it does not go smoothly when he expresses his belief that the Earth, contrary to popular belief, is round.
A free interpretation
Nothing is basic in ‘Erasmus Montanus’; a quality that is not unusual when a play is put into the hands of Lollike. Certainly, the original story does not involve an inflatable mosque or a large T-rex running across the stage, apparently with no other purpose other than to tickle the humour of the audience.
It is a very free interpretation of the play, and a funny one. But more than a simple reinterpretation, it is sometimes hard to recognise that the play is Holberg’s at all, especially towards the end. Lollike tries to keep the play updated and relatable, which works most of the time, but it is rather more exaggerated and absurd.
The meaning conveyed in the play, however, is the same as Holberg intended. In order to fit in and return to his fiance Lisbeth, Montanus must lie and agree with the villagers that the Earth is flat. He has to abandon his opinion if he wishes to marry her, and that’s the condition. The audience knows that what happens on stage is the vision that has been abandoned by reality, and therein lies the irony of the narrative.
Lollike questions Danish values and heritage in a global perspective. In recent months the discussion of what it is to be Danish has dominated the media, and Lollike captures this debate perfectly. It is not a main theme in the original play, but has been added by Lollike, bringing the play into the contemporary world and challenging the understanding of what it means to be Danish.
A setting to inspire
A simple and minimalistic backdrop, made from carton and plywood and painted only in black and white, resembles the Scandinavian style and has a sober feel. The costumes are also black and white, and the actors almost look like cartoons with their white painted faces. Thus the scenery, costumes and makeup fit perfectly together.
The actors are some of the biggest names in Danish theatre, and their performance is wonderful and captivating. Andreas Jebro plays a hilarious Montanus. His over-the-top movements and body language bring tears of laughter as he jumps around the stage, yelling.
An image I will not soon forget is that of Montanus being dragged around the stage by his private parts as he stands full-frontal naked at the end of the performance.
Also worth mentioning are Zaki Youssef as Montanus’ brother Jacob, Lars Brygmann, and Ole Thestrup, who did a fine and approved job as well.
Pushing the boundaries of hilarity
Lollike’s unusual and unexpected take on Holberg’s ‘Erasmus Montanus’ absurdly pushes the boundaries of a well-known classic. But Holberg’s spirit still remains; after all, his primary aim was to surprise and delight an unknowing audience. We certainly recommend a trip to experience Lollike’s bizarre and hilarious adaptation.
Erasmus Montanus is playing at Aarhus Theatre until March 11th, 2017. The play is in Danish, but on March 3rd and March 10th there will be English subtitles to allow the international community to also appreciate the magic of Holberg’s story.
This special presentation of Erasmus Montanus is a collaboration between Sort/Hvid and Aarhus 2017 to commemorate the play’s presentation at the inauguration of Aarhus Theatre in 1900, part of celebrating Danish classics in this year of culture.
For tickets and more information on other performances, visit Aarhus Theatre’s website here.