Defamiliarising the Danish

Resident Director Jamie Armitage takes us into The Hunt rehearsals.

Scandimania is alive in the UK. We love our furniture flat-packed and our jumpers thick-knitted. We love dancing queens and girls with dragoon tattoos. We adore hygge and some are even tempted by Norway Plus. Yet when a culture is so familiar, how do you make a theatrical depiction of Denmark feel like it’s not just a story set in Britain?

Through the research phase of rehearsals, we looked to ground the world of The Hunt in a small Danish town buried in the forests of north Jutland. This included unearthing some fantastic cultural trivia, like the tradition of leaving a bowl of porridge out at Christmas to try and stop a mischievous elf from playing pranks on your family. Despite the porridge fuelled elf not making an appearance in the show, our research on schooling and ideology, politics and parenting, informed our creation of a theatrical world which we wanted to feel distinctly different from our own. Yet two areas of the play were more difficult to navigate as they had such specifically British cultural associations.

The first of these traps of familiarity was hunting. In the UK, hunting is most closely associated with the red-coated elite chasing foxes for fun. In Denmark, however, it is a widely popular pan-class activity, which not only has strong links to forestry but also to Nordic mythology. Hunting is engrained into their national identity, not as a frivolous pursuit of the privileged, but as an act of stewardship for their natural world.

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In order to capture the specifically Danish spirit of hunting, we invited a deer hunter to speak to the cast. The hunter’s description of the process of stalking and shooting a deer sounded like it bordered on a spiritual experience. He described a deep oneness with nature that stemmed from hours crawling through brambles by half-frozen streams, with the wind tearing at your senses, as well as the significance in ending the life of a powerful animal. The actors then used the hunter’s experiences to inform how their characters spoke and felt about this pursuit so that it seemed less of a jolly pastime and more of a profound interaction with the natural world.

After a hunt, the hunters in the play drink beer together and sing songs. We realised that, in staging this scene, we risked falling into another trap of familiarity. Even though the story is set in Denmark and these are Danish characters singing and drinking, we collectively felt that it looked a lot like a particularly boisterous rugby club, unintentionally anglicising these nuanced, and essentially Danish characters.

Consequently we reworked the singing to become something stranger, using more guttural sounds and staged less naturalistically. The lyrics are still in English, but the entire energy feels distinctly unfamiliar.

This aspect of the rehearsal process has been about distinguishing the helpful from the unhelpful similarities between Danish and British culture. We have had to be alert to when assumed familiarity may inhibit an audience’s experience and how cultural difference can amplify the power of The Hunt’s narrative.

The Hunt | 17 Jun - 3 Aug