How do you follow up a hit like Kristina från Duvemåla? With a musical set on a farm where most of the roles are taken by animals, of course!
SvD catches up with the group behind Orionteatern’s Hjälp sökes, from Benny Andersson and Kristina Lugn to goose Tim and pig Flora.
It is now 30 years since an old factory building was converted into Orionteatern. The anniversary will be celebrated with a show unlike any other.
The director of Hjälp sökes is Lars Rudolfsson. Along with Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, Lars formed part of ‘Team Kristina’, and here he expands the team with Kristina Lugn.
These high-profile Swedish cultural figures are joined by Danish circus partner Suzanne Berdino, the woman behind the recent poetic horse shows at Orionteatern.
Orionteatern is something unusual, in as much as it is a theatre with stables, with particular local government support for modern animal husbandry. In the clear winter air around the block there is a faint whiff of manure and hay.
It’s not the kind of musical you could do on Broadway – Björn
“The set is almost like a farmhouse, that you cannot stay in,” says Suzanne Berdino.
On her previous visit to Orionteatern, she mostly worked with just horses, but this time she has also brought cows, geese, chickens, goats and dogs.
“You have to respect that they are animals. Animals are important to me, they are just like my children…people say that one can not have a relationship with a hen…yes, you can actually!”
To facilitate the creation of a relationship, Suzanne Berdino named a rooster and two hens (of the Plymouth Rock variety) after her own children: Oliver, Stephanie and Charmaine. It’s Oliver the neighbours can hear at 5 a.m. in the morning.
The animals must of course be handled every day. Daniel Kośćik is grooming horse Douglas before the morning workout. He is a black Norikerhäst running around the ring with Louis, a little pony that fits easily under Douglas’ withers. Louis has no role in the show, only a role with the company. “All animals must have a mate.” says Suzanne Berdino.
It’s hard to tear ourselves away from the animals. But alongside Douglas and Oliver there are also some people that are at the heart of this idea.
Pigs are intelligent, but only really care about food – Suzanne Berdino
When Lars Rudolfsson is asked about how all this began, even his laugh has a neighing quality…as he explains how he is in awe at this unusual project actually becoming a reality. “It started when Suzanne told me she had these cows. And they could do a routine together with a goat. Then I began to dream.
“Suzanne is a director for the animals, a director colleague who works in a completely different realm with living creatures. Yet we have so much in common in our views of how things should be managed. It is about working with passion, not coercion, never do anything that goes against nature. Working up things that are organic, both in the situation and with the people you work with.”
Rudolfsson began to formulate an idea of two brothers who have a farm with animals – and huge problems with their existence and that of others’.
They advertise for someone to help them, hence the title Hjälp sökes (Help Wanted). But what turns up is not what they have in mind – there is a daughter, a mother, a goat…
You could say that Lars Rudolfsson found a story that screamed out for a Kristina Lugn text.
“The choice was easy.” Lars says, “Kristina Lugn was a prerequisite. The very first person I could think of to write about two brothers who ‘trudge around in the bloodline’ – to use her own expression. She can formulate the trauma between two siblings in a tragicomic setting like no other.
“So, we next needed music. Who would write it? Benny of course. And as the project got more serious, I asked Björn if he could write the lyrics. I think the topic interested him. The brothers encounter something unknown that brings out things in the two of them that they are not prepared for. There may be strong feelings, needs of love, an experience of imperfection.”
Working with animals on set of course requires special demands of the actors.
Lars: “It requires a huge amount of listening. And it’s mutual. The animals need people who will listen to them, but one can also say that people need animals to listen to them. It is exciting form of freedom. And the animals feel at home here. I think it’s very important that they can make this their environment. The animals can not look surprised every time they get on stage!”.
“Allez! Wait! Stop! Hophop!” – Suzanne Berdino trains her horses in a mixture of French, German, English and Danish. But with Kira and Flora, she speaks only Danish, they are black and white mini-pigs with a lot of spirit. Kira is renowned for collecting crumpled beer cans in a bucket.
In a box on the wall is a large assortment of pig candy, dog food and carrots for the horses. “Pigs are intelligent, but only really care about food – they are different from dogs who can actually perform mathematics content,” said Suzanne Berdino.
She grew up in a circus family in Denmark, where her father and brother still run Circus Arena, the nation’s largest. They have 56 horses and elephants and sea lions and many other animals.
When Kristina Lugn was commissioned by Lars Rudolfsson, each set-piece idea was already formulated, which was an unfamiliar situation for her: “It’s really very difficult to write another person’s idea. I’m not really that kind of writer. I mainly write plays that don’t really have a plot and which are based on the actors’ sense of language.
“But then I realised that just because they are farmers, they need not always go around and talk about the fact that they are farmers. They have other interests which they can talk about. So one brother is into Strindberg-ology and writes literary criticism. I think he writes in Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet.
“It’s a bit hard to describe things in this play…actually, this is a classic bad brother relationship. But you see that changing. There is a childishness and playfulness – it’s inside the brothers occasionally or is it outside?”
The play contains eight songs, but the animals did not receive any original songs! – Björn
The entire piece begins with one of the brothers (played by Johan Ulveson) leading their cows on to the stage. He thinks it is great to work with animals on stage. He says: “An advantage when working with animals is that they are less self-centred than actors tend to be. They would never get the idea to try to steal focus. Though they can do that anyway of course by being completely unpredictable!”
“The play contains eight songs, but the animals did not receive any original songs!” says Björn Ulvaeus. He has, however, written about the goat. “It was fun but strange to write lyrics for a play by the poet Kristina Lugn.”
“It was nerve-wracking before I got her blessing. The dialogue is wild, as her pieces are…rapid, with associations in different directions. It gave me a lot of freedom. She had told me what the songs would express, but no more than that. If, about the young girl, she wrote: ‘Here Hillevi sings about things that nobody knows’…it allowed me the freedom to write the song Bortom sol och måne (Beyond the sun and moon).”
Björn Ulvaeus perceives Hjälp sökes as a clear existentialist piece: “It’s Sartre in a nutshell. For me it was the opening up of one’s existence. It is about people in a state of perpetual reinvention, two narrow-minded individuals undergoing a metamorphosis. The strange thing is that the animals have an amazing ability to draw one closer into it.”
He’s hard pushed to say if the piece could be staged elsewhere. “Possibly in Oslo or Helsinki. But it’s not the kind of musical you could do on Broadway. The funny thing about this project is that it is utterly alien from anything from our past. No one can accuse us of aiming commercially,” he says.
Björn Ulvaeus compares working on Hjälp sökes with what it was like to work with CHESS in London in 1985 and finds it differs wildly. “It was all so massive. If you wanted to change something, it was like turning a tanker. Here it is like working in a recording studio. And it is quite wonderful – you can try things out in a completely different way.”
Benny Andersson is enjoying the experience of working in the new, different way: “This format is so convenient. If there’s something that irks, we can simply test what happens if you replace 16 with 32 bars. All the musicians are constantly working. It’s not at all like sitting with 40 people in the orchestra pit at Cirkus for the premiere of Kristina.”
A particular complication is the fact that no idea involving animals on stage ever works the same way twice. The solution is to add to the score many opportunities for ‘vamping’.
Benny explains: “Vamping is playing small pieces that you can loop, so that by the time the dog has decided to get up, we are ready. We need many similar small ‘safety nets’ in this play. There is often a groove that rolls until the next element comes into play.”
When you have been in ABBA, you can never surpass that. Not in terms of audience success – Benny
Writing music for the animals, Benny Andersson compares to writing film music, he lets the music underline certain things that are happening. The idea is that the whole piece undergoes a musical development. It starts with the brothers who cannot agree on anything. Then it will be mostly speech on stage.
“In the beginning it is quite musically sparse. But, then the women will change the guise of the performance. A new element enters their lives. That’s what we’ll try to describe. From then on there will be much more music, with more and more vocals.” says Benny.
After having had such an impact with CHESS and Kristina, do you think to yourselves how will I surpass these next time?
Benny: “You do not do things to necessarily surpass yourself. This is an enjoyable project, one which is challenging artistically. When you have been in ABBA, you can never surpass that. Not in terms of audience success. It’s a nice position to be in.”