Thursday, May 5, 2011

Liv Ullmann's Return

Thursday, May 5, 2011
[Ullmann1]© Leif Gabrielsen

Liv Ullmann plays Mary Tyrone, the drug-addicted matriarch of Eugene O'Neill's masterpiece "Long Day's Journey into Night."

Liv Ullmann is known for her groundbreaking roles in Swedish movies, but she got her start on the Norwegian stage. Born in Tokyo in 1938 to Norwegian parents, she grew up in postwar Trondheim, and by her 20s had become one of Norway's best-known actresses. In the 1960s she began her celebrated collaboration with Swedish director Ingmar Bergman (1918-2007). She acted in 10 of his films, starting in 1966 with "Persona," co-starring her friend, Swedish actress Bibi Andersson; and ending in 2003 with "Saraband," in which she appeared alongside Bergman regular, Erland Josephson.

"Saraband," a made-for-television project, was an exception for Ms. Ullmann. Although one of the world's most admired actresses, she has all but given up acting, turning her talents instead toward directing. Like Bergman, whose scripts she has filmed, she directs both movies and plays, and her second career reached a high point in 2009, when her Sydney Theater Company production of Tennessee Williams's "A Streetcar Named Desire," starring Cate Blanchett as Blanche DuBois, took New York audiences and critics by storm.

[COVER]Photo: Kjerand Nesvik

Liv Ullmann acted in 10 of Ingmar Bergman's films.

This month, Ms. Ullmann, who spends much of her time in the U.S., returns to acting, and to Norway, with a vengeance. Appearing on stage for the first time in 20 years, she has come home to try her hand at one of modern theater's great dramatic roles—Mary Tyrone, the drug-addicted matriarch of Eugene O'Neill's masterpiece "Long Day's Journey into Night." A dark, riveting, heartfelt portrait of a doomed theater clan, the play, set in early 20th century New England, is based on O'Neill's own family. Though finished in the early 1940s, it was not published or staged until after the playwright's death in 1953.

The new production—mounted by Norway's traveling repertory company, the Riksteatret, and staged by Norwegian actor and director Stein Winge —will tour some 50 venues across Norway this fall. Fittingly, the run will end in December at Stockholm's Royal Dramatic Theater, Ingmar Bergman's professional home, where the play had its world premier in 1956.

Ms. Ullmann spoke to The Wall Street Journal by telephone from Oslo, a few days after the production's Sept. 1 opening.

Why did you return to acting?

It was so tempting to come back to Norway—to be on the bus and tour the country, which I did in the beginning of my career. I could never forget the beauty of Norway, and it was tempting to be able to see Norway that way again, and then to know in the evening I am going to do my thing.

What is it like to appear in front of an audience after all these years?

Scary. My part, Mary Tyrone, is on morphine. In the beginning, her family doesn't know, but very soon, they know and the audience knows. Then I go into a narcotic way of being. It's a wonder how O'Neill has shown her -- the truth comes out of her. Things you don't normally want to say to people, she says. I was nervous to go so far into this most secret place of a human being, and in front of the audience, which I haven't done for so long.

Mary is clearly a victim -- of her doctors, of the society she lives in—but is she also a victimizer?

Yes, but we all are sometimes the victim and sometimes the victimizer. She isn't more of a victim than anybody else, but she feels she is a victim because she is always alone. The rest of the family goes out to drink -- she feels like a victim because they are always drunk. But Tyrone and his sons would say the same: They feel they are victims, because the woman who is their wife and mother is on morphine. We always find somebody else to blame.

You recently had a great success directing "A Streetcar Named Desire." What was special about that experience?

It was an incredible ensemble, which is what I like -- I don't like to be Liv Ullmann, I like to be one of a group. "A Streetcar Named Desire" filled me with a lot of happiness.

What do you remember about Ingmar Bergman's 1988 Stockholm production of "Long Day's Journey into Night"?

I remember that it made a big impression on me. My best friend Bibi Andersson played my part, and I think I remember her the most. I came to Sweden that morning from the United States, and I thought, I don't think I'm going to go see it. But I went, and I was so happy. I came up to Bibi afterward to thank her. I said, "I always knew you were a great actress but I didn't know you were that wonderful."

How did you prepare to play Mary?

I have never worked so hard on any role. She talks and talks and talks, goes from one sentence about one thing to another sentence about something else. Why does she change suddenly? You really need to do a lot of homework to figure that out. You should see my script—I have written so much in it you can hardly read it anymore. The director very often wants me to speak quickly, and I'm a slow person. I come from the north of Norway, and we talk slowly. In the end I did have to make things quick, to shift in a quick way. I didn't understand at first why it had to be like that.

[Ullmann2]Everett Collection / Rex Features

Liv Ullman in 1973

Ingmar Bergman's theater productions are legendary. Why?

I was in one play of Bergman's. He came to Norway to do Pirandello's "Six Characters in Search of an Author." He was incredible —a visionary, who somehow made everyone else want to be a visionary. He couldn't be better than he was on film, but he was an amazing theater director.

James Tyrone, Mary's husband, decided to sell out his talent for commercial success,

You have worked with many famous actors. Is there a James Tyrone lurking in each of them?

Yeah, in all men, not just actors—and there is a bit of Mary in all women. Since you mention James Tyrone, I have to say that Bj[oslash]rn Sundquist, my James Tyrone, is one of the best actors I have ever worked with. Gene Hackman, Peter Finch, Max von Sydow and Erland Josephson -- he's right up there for me.

What has the role of Mary Tyrone taught you about yourself?

I have learned that I also have secrets that I don't want to show. I am like Nora [in Ibsen's "A Doll's House"] -- I'm always smiling, want things to be easy for everybody. Underneath, there is anger, and a feeling of being victimized. I see that more clearly -- because he is a great playwright, O'Neill has shown this to me. I am now discussing with myself how not to be Nora so much of the time.

—J. S. Marcus is a writer based in Berlin.

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