King Marke 2.0 – on Per Fly’s Forestillinger
I daresay there’s a lot going on within Danish television drama these days! I was just working on a post on a new Danish crime series (Forbrydelsen – “The Crime”) that premiered just a few weeks ago, but I’ll be darned if a new drama series doesn’t air on that same channel (DR1) before I’ve even gotten around to proof-read! So now my review of the former will have to move over a little for Danish televison drama’s most recent creation: Concept-series Forestillinger by director Per Fly.
“6 uger” – “six weeks”: DR1 has aired the first two episodes of new six-parter Forestillinger
I’m always a little hesitant towards reviewing specifically Danish cultural phenomena here on this internationally oriented blog, written in English, but in this case I think it makes sense. Forestillinger is a truly interesting television creation, much more so than Danish Emmy award winners of recent years such as tedious, superficial frappucino-drama Nikolaj & Julie (winner in the category “Best Drama Series” at the Emmy Awards 2002), and as such it deserves all the attention it can get, even outside of Denmark. The concept of Forestillinger (a Danish word which may mean both “performances” and “conceptions”) is this: Throughout six episodes we are told the same story six times, from six different perspectives, the story of a director of theatre, whose actress girlfriend leaves him to have a short-lived affair with a young co-actor in the performance they’re all working on: A staging of Shakespeare’s poem Venus and Adonis. Depending on the perspective, we get a commentary by the character in question, and so far we’ve seen the story from young actor Jakob’s (episode 1) and the director’s girlfriend Tanja’s (episode 2) points of view. As one might imagine, given the fact that the series revolves around a group of theatrical artists who are romantically involved, the main-themes of the series are the performances in which we tend to participate, even when we’re only trying to live our lives and despite our intentions to pursue authenticity, and the conceptions and misconceptions that we form about each other in the process.
Forestillinger and intertextuality
Is this an innovate concept? Certainly not. All the world was a stage and all the men and women merely players even in the archaically hierarchic Elizabethan times, and Per Fly is not the first movie director to explore this idea either; Al Pacino’s Looking for Richard (1996) and Swedish Suzanne Oster’s highly neglected The Mozart Brothers from 1986 (about the schemes playing out during a controversial staging of Don Giovanni at the Stockholm Opera) revolve around the same kind of performative-reality logic. What I find to be particularly refreshing and, yes, innovative about Per Fly’s Forestillinger, however, is its clever use of intertextuality. Now, I’m a sucker for intertextuality, I’ll admit that openly. Hard-core humanities graduate, student of Comparative Literature, and amateur Jungian as I am, of course nothing could be more delicious to me than the idea that we are, in a sense, re-writing ourselves and our own plots over and over again. It’s a kind of guilty pleasure – the humanities graduate’s game of Tetris, one might call it, where there are only a limited number of forms and shapes and they all kind of fit together, and it looks really neat. But I do think that there’s something particularly ingenious about using intertextuality as the frame for a story about the performativity of our lives, and I believe that that is what Per Fly is doing with Forestillinger. And the intertextuality that he’s drawing on is that of the Tristan-Isolde-King Marke myth.
This particular reference is not something that I’ve thought of myself – I’m following a course on medieval literature at the university this semester and during class last week, the professor who’s giving the course, Jørgen Bruhn, mentioned the television series and proposed that the storyline might be inspired by the Tristan/Isolde legend, which we were discussing that particular day. “Hurry up and write an article about this before anyone else thinks of it!,” he urged us good-naturedly – and with that in mind I watched the first two episodes of the series yesterday, and I thought the Tristan/Isolde/Marke homage in the story was striking and most interesting.
Dejan Cukic as patron Marko
Marko, no less, is the name of the theatre director (played by Dejan Cukic) whose wife Tanja (Sonja Richter) leaves him and has an affair with a younger man, Jakob (Mads Wille), and it wouldn’t be too contrived, I think, to see this director-character, this theatre-patron, offering gentle guidance and stern reprimands to his subjects, the actors, as a monarchic figure. “If one were to mention a director who’d created innovation within Danish theatre for the last 10-15 years, that would be him…. The actors who appear in his performances always go one step further from what one has seen from them beforehand… He is the king” says an enthusiastic Jakob about Marko, awestruck at the thought of getting to work with this idolized man, shortly after having lingered adoringly on the subject of what he perceives to be the “major talent” of Marko’s beautiful girlfriend Tanja: “Was she in your class at Drama School?” Jakob is asked, and Jakob humbly sets the enquirer straight: “No, she was in the class ahead of me.”, before adding, beaming with pride: “We were together at school, too! We were. A couple of times. We did have a- a kind of affair. But then she got together with Marko at a point.”
The object of Jakob’s – and Marko’s? – affection: beautiful Tanja
Aaand this is where I happily reach Level 1 of my aforementioned little humanities graduate game of Tetris: this is intertextuality at its most appetizing; the stage is set beautifully for a Tristan-story. The essence of a Tristan-story is the story of a young man who idolizes a generous patron, only to become conflicted when he falls in love with his beautiful, aloof queen and initiates an affair with her. It’s the unruly force of Love contra the noble and sensible frame that is Society that is at play in such stories, and the King Arthur/Queen Guinevere/Lancelot legend as well as more recent works such as Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther and Schiller’s Don Carlos are examples of stories that are without doubt influenced by this ancient myth. Youthful, wide-eyed Jakob fills his Tristan-part perfectly: Very significantly we are treated to cameos of Jakob carefully running his electric shaver over his boyishly smooth chin, and taking directions from the older, full-bearded Marko, and beautiful Tanja, dressed in almost every scene in sensual shades of red, wavers fickle-heartedly between her bestowing husband and her adoring lover. Per Fly’s story about performativity is backed up by an ancient textual form with a full set of well-defined parts, ready for the participants to inhabit and perform.
And yet, this is not what they do, exactly, and this is where things get truly interesting, I think. Because more than just using the Tristan-myth, Per Fly challenges the myth within his drama series. Anna and I have sometimes discussed Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and agreed that King Marke and hand-maid Brangäne, with their frets and doubts and worries, are definitely the more sympathetic characters in the story: Tristan and Isolde are incarnated ideas more than actual persons, uncompromising and inhuman as they are in their ardent love and love-death for each other, and they’re difficult to relate to. However, in Per Fly’s Forestillinger thus far (one should keep in mind that I’ve only seen two of the series’ six episodes and thus only one third of the points of view that will be explored throughout its run), King Marke plays a much more conceptually defined and a lot less human character than your average Philip II or Albert, fretting pitifully about their ominous white hair or their wives’ kind gaze upon their lovers. What Per Fly’s Forestillinger proposes is the idea that if King Marke is Society, if he is Wisdom and Sovereign, then maybe he is, after all, the strongest character? Because in Forestillinger what we seem to be witnessing is a game initiated and controlled by Marke, rather than lost by him. “I was wondering if maybe you and Tanja could go over the scenes that the two of you share. I mean, outside of the rehearsal-schedule here at the theatre. Maybe you could meet up alone and then work on it a little… Here’s a key. Then you can just come and go as you please.” Says Marko to Jakob, thus obviously turning the parts upside down. This Marke doesn’t get sneaked around on, he stages the sneaking himself and pushes the two lovers into each others arms. Purposely? Well, Eva, an older, more experienced actress at the theatre as well as Marko’s ex-wife seems to think so, and she advises Tanja as she wants to return to Marko: “You need to figure out what part you want to play in Marko’s life,” she says “Actress or wife. You can’t be both. …You can’t believe him when he says he wants to quit the theatre. Theatre is his life.” and Jakob agrees wholeheartedly, after his boyish admiration has given way for his need for rebellion against Marke: “I’ve slept with Tanja. I love her like crazy… But you know that, don’t you? You’ve known all along. Isn’t that right? Don’t you feel anything? Don’t you feel threatened? …Or is this part of the plan? As long as you can do your fucking performance… You’re using us in your shitty performance!”
Troubled youth Jakob
At the end of the episode, in a desperate, shocking turn of events, Jakob ends up forcing Tanja into sleeping with him as the ultimate rebellion against the Tristan-part he’s been made to play by a calculating King Marke; the young knight defiling the Queen that he was supposed to adore and love. Except one can’t help feeling, claustrophobically, that maybe this was part of the plan, too, that maybe there is really no way of escaping King Marke’s sovereign.
“You’re a f*cking whore!”
What does all this mean, then? Well, the obvious interpretation would be that in Per Fly’s Tristan-story, Love is not the power that may threaten the confinements of Form, of Society, no, Society, our performative interaction with each other, threatens Love. Has King Marke, in Per Fly’s optics, become a powerful figure in modern society, or has he always been the strong one? Or is Jakob and Eva wrong, and King Marke actually a decent person, and another grey-haired victim of adultery? I guess I’ll have to wait and watch all the episodes these next four weeks before I can answer those questions. But I will definitely be watching. The series isn’t flawless, and as television reviewer Per Munch touches upon in newspaper Politiken today, Forestillinger continues a regrettable tendency within Danish television writing, where ad-lib-like idomaticality is pursued in favour of eloquence and verbal substance – although I do think that this idomaticality is actually used well in the series from time to time. For instance, when Jakob flung his seemingly common curse upon Tanja “You’re a fucking whore, Tanja!”, it actually did hold a kind of ambiguous substance: from Jakob’s elightened point-of-view Tanja might indeed be said to be acting as Marko’s whore. But all in all Forestillinger has definitely captured my interest as a rare piece of intertextual television and an exploration of the war between Passion and Comformity, and what the outcome of such a war might be in the year 2007. Hereby recommended.
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