“Ways of Seeing”: Oslo Black Box Theatre

How a Fringe Performance Led to the Trial of the Decade

No theatrical event has been more discussed or has had more far-reaching consequences in Norway during the last couple of years than the piece Ways of Seeing (the title was not in Norwegian), which opened at Black Box Theatre in Oslo in November 2018. This is ironic, because few people saw the performance live as it ran for a limited number of evenings and always in quite small venues. Nevertheless, Ways of Seeing — a theatrical piece staged in a fringe venue in stable, democratic Norway — led to threats towards members of government, several police reports, the resignation of a government minister, and one of the most high-profile court cases in recent times.

Ways of Seeing is a play with a political message. It was created by director Pia Maria Roll, co-director Marius von der Fehr, and actors Sara Baban and Hanan Benammar. They described themselves as artists who have “mapped the networks that are interested in making Norway a more racist society”. The artists were referring to mainly right-wing politicians and public figures they saw as contributing to a racist discourse in the Norwegian public debate. Particularly the theme of immigration had at times been characterized by quite strong rhetoric. For Ways of Seeing, the artists drew on their own experience, as both Baban and Benammar are immigrants to Norway from lraq and France respectively.

While Ways of Seeing was an exciting production in and of itself both through the stories that were told and the theatrical styles that were used, one element in the performance has come to overshadow everything else: the scene where the actors pretend to spy on the houses of various Norwegian politicians. Films were projected on the back-stage wall showing these actual houses. Thus, while the act of spying was portrayed on stage as pretence, the artists revealed that they had indeed “spied” on the politicians’ houses by filming them — albeit from a sufficient distance such that no details were visible nor was anyone seen in or around the houses.

 

Ways of Seeing cast members. Credit Leif Gabrielsen.

 

In terms of theatre in Norway, this was a radical device. From the start, the fact that Ways of Seeing featured footage of prominent politicians’ private homes provoked debate and criticism. One of the critics was Laila Bertheussen, the partner of the Minister of Justice Tor Mikkel Wara. One of the houses shown on the film was theirs. Bertheussen attended a performance but was thrown out before it finished because she attempted to film the production with her phone. Afterwards, she wrote a piece in one of Norway’s largest-circulation newspapers where she strongly criticized what she deemed to be a breach of privacy on the part of the theatre company. Subsequently, she reported the artists to the police for filming her family’s house illegally, but the report was dismissed.

Normally, this is where the story of Ways of Seeing would have ended. As a radical piece of political theatre, Ways of Seeing caused debate related to the topic it discussed as well as the means by which the play discussed the issue of racism in Norway. As such, it was a significant success.

However, this is not the end of the story. In December 2018, strange things started to happen to the politicians’ houses that had been filmed in Ways of Seeing. Wara and his family were particularly affected. On 6 December, the family woke up to find that someone had written “RAClST” (misspelled as “RASlSlT”) on the house wall and on their car. In addition, there was a piece of string running from the petrol tank of the car, as if someone had wanted to put the car on fire. Similar incidents occurred throughout the spring, including a fire in one of the trash bins and a suspicious object being attached to the car. In addition, other politicians who were mentioned in Ways of Seeing received threatening letters.

lt is not an everyday occurrence in Norway that a minister and several members of parliament receive threats and are exposed to even relatively minor attacks. These incidents were taken very seriously by the authorities and were quickly associated with Ways of Seeing in public discourse. It was suggested that perhaps someone had been inspired by the theatre production to threaten or attack the “hidden networks that are interested in making Norway a more racist society” that the artists behind Ways of Seeing claimed to have uncovered. Some went so far as to suggest that the artists themselves were involved. The artists received criticism from several sides but most notably from the prime minister, Erna Solberg. She suggested that while she did not believe the theatre artists were responsible as such, they had contributed to making it harder to be a politician because they had put forward strong accusations and made private information publicly available. Solberg said that performers needed to consider whether it is wise to include this kind of information in their productions. Many artists expressed surprise at this formulation because it can be seen as an attack on — or, at the very least, a warning against — free speech.

The most surprising event in the string of incidents happened on 14th March, 2019. On this day, the police arrested Laila Bertheussen, the wife of the Minister of Justice, claiming that she had personally staged the attacks herself. The police argued that she had intended to discredit the theatre artists. Bertheussen denied the allegation but as a result of the arrest, Wara was forced to resign as Minister of Justice. There was a trial in the autumn of 2020, and Bertheussen was found guilty. The most serious allegation against her was that she had led “attacks on democracy”, a law that in Norway can be used when people threaten high-ranking officials. Bertheussen herself still denies the allegation and has appealed against the sentence.

 

Ways of Seeing included projection. Credit: Margaret Hagevik.

 

l do not want to enter into a discussion of the incidents, the evidence, the trial, or the question of guilt here; there is more than enough information available in the public sphere for anyone who wants to delve further into this strange story. However, I do believe that some points can be made about all this from a theatrical point of view. Firstly, it is interesting to note how Ways of Seeing illustrates theatre’s ability to point to delicate and problematic structures and issues in society. Today, surveillance is normal. We are constantly under surveillance: we are filmed and information about us is available online. The politicians’ addresses that were shown in Ways of Seeing are not secret. They are available online for anyone who wishes to find them. Nevertheless, it was the fact that the actual politicians’ houses were shown on stage in the theatre which caused such anger and distress — even if, as mentioned above, only a limited number of people actually attended. This suggests that even currently, when the public sphere is more accessible than ever, there is still something special about meetings between actors and audience that the theatre facilitates. The liveness of theatre is still potentially powerful — even for, as in the case here, political discussion and provocation. This is cause for hope.

The second point that I believe can be drawn from the story of how the public interacted with the drama Ways of Seeing is both less encouraging and more serious. This story reminds us that free speech and free artistic creation are not to be taken for granted – even today and even in a western democracy like Norway. l do not believe that prime minister Erna Solberg meant to imply an attitude of scepticism towards the concept of free art with her remarks, but it is nevertheless striking that the words she used came to mind so easily. It is also striking that she has neither retracted her statement nor apologized to the theatre company — even after there has been every reason to believe that the sentence given to Bertheussen at the conclusion of the trial was clearly merited. This reminds us that we have to continuously discuss what free speech and freedom of artistic expression mean. We must be ready to defend artistic liberty at all times, even when it seems secured and safe.

l hope that in my country there will be more political theatre with an actual impact on society in the future. I hope that everywhere, people working in theatre will not be afraid to confront those in power and to take on delicate issues. Hopefully, the sad consequences we have witnessed after Ways of Seeing will prove to be a one-off event.