Norway’s historic National Theater in Oslo is in such bad shape that tarps and scaffolding have been set up around it, to keep its crumbling facade from hitting passersby in the head. After years of neglect, the government has finally announced a major renovation of the theater known as playwright Henrik Ibsen’s house.
One can only wonder what Ibsen, who had plenty of his own quarrels with the state, would have thought about how the theater he was involved in building has been allowed to deteriorate over the years. Media commentators have been complaining for months about how the state is spending billions of kroner to build new cultural institutions while failing to maintain existing properties. “What could have been a standard renovation project several years ago is now turning into a need for acute catastrophic aid, to keep the whole building from falling apart,” wrote Hege Ulstein in newspaper Dagsavisen earlier this week.
The tarps and scaffolding now encasing the theater have been an embarrassment to state officials responsible. Current Culture Minister Linda Hofstad Helleland is also a big fan of Henrik Ibsen. Many of her predecessors in earlier governments share responsibility for letting Ibsen’s house sink into disrepair, but she couldn’t let his theater collapse while she was in charge.
On Friday she relieved all concerned by announcing that the state will fund a full restoration of the National Theater, set to cost around NOK 1.9 billion (USD 223 million). “The National Theater is one of our cultural treasures, with a unique position in Norwegian and international cultural life,” Helleland said. “The government is now getting a grip on preserving our important cultural heritage.”
She noted that “a wealthy cultural nation like Norway can’t let one of our most beautiful culturally historic buildings continue to fall apart.” She said the government had opted to launch a program that will put a priority on necessary rehabilitation of the building itself and a thorough upgrade of the main stage. “The needs are very extensive and acute,” Helleland said. “The facade must be secured, and the main stage is in bad shape.”
Process already underway
She said that the restoration process is already underway. Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reported that actual rebuilding will begin in 2020 and be finished in 2024, in time for the National Theater’s 125th anniversary. “The snowball is rolling and it will be impossible to stop it,” Helleland said.
Some improvements and modernization have been made over the years, also after the building located midway between the Royal Palace and the Parliament was put under historic preservation orders in the 1980s. Helleland said there was broad political support for the restoration project, which also is aimed at improving working conditions inside the theater.
Helland admitted the process of launching the restoration has taken too long. “This is really happening several decades too late,” she said. “Politicians have been aware of the deterioration since the 1980s.”
Theater likely to close during restoration
Anne Enger, leader of the board of the National Theater, was glad to finally get the funding but cautioned that needs were so great that it won’t be enough. The theater itself had wanted twice the amount of funding granted, “but this is the first fundamental and important step in taking care of this fantastic building,” Enger said.
Agnes Moxnes, culture commentator for state broadcaster NRK, said the theater will probably need to close during parts of the extensive renovation work. “Behind the stage, they’ll be building a modern theater, while the salons will be competely restored and put in perfect shape,” Moxnes said. “The theater will probably need to close for a few years.”