BENDIK and ÅROLILJA

(Music composed by Bugge Wesseltoft)



Ever since I first came over his story around 1990, I have been fascinated by painter Bendik Riis. He lived to be 76, and the last half of his life became a struggle against mental illness. The long process involved in making a theatre work of this material came to a climax in the autumn of 2010 with the production by Østfold Theatre of Castracsjon, which went on tour around the county's theatres, as well as to Kanonhallen in Oslo.

A large plus for the work was the involvement of famous jazz composer Bugge Wesseltoft. The actors were Bjørn Ole Ødegård, Lars Sørbø and Hedda Sandvig. But the enduring learning process this material has committed me to, never stops. Since the Østfold premiere, I have continued to develop the script, and to make an English-language version. The manuscript now carries the title: Bendik and Årolilja. These are gripping themes – primarily about how we hold our identity together when everything around us seems designed to break it into fragments.

Here are my words about the piece that were included in the programme for Østfold Theatre's production:

’I moved to Fredrikstad in 1989, one year after Bendik Riis was buried in the town's western cemetery. Although I never met him I would frequently be told anecdotes about this eccentric local celebrity. Some people related tales of his later years when he had permission once a week to leave the institution in Halden where he was confined and travel on nostalgic trips to Fredrikstad to revisit the cafés and parks he loved. Other anecdotes dated from when he was a young man before the war – a budding artist who gained for himself a reputation in the local community for being an unruly, bohemian figure.

I noticed a peculiarity in the way these stories were retold. The owner of a well-worked Riis anecdote would always light up with the glow of a good storyteller, as if the story encompassed a greater value than the mere entertainment it offered – as if it was associated with some pleasure or innocence one would gladly have again.

I eventually began to be familiar with the Myth of Bendik. It became obvious that, around the story of the eccentric misfit who became an artist, a mythical aura had materialised. As a metaphor, the story of his life had accumulated significances that few, if any, of Bendik’s contemporaries would have understood or recognised.

A modern myth – about what? Several things, in my opinion. About guilt and innocence, certainly. About the fragmented, modern lives we are compelled to try and make sense of. But also about separation and longing, yes about the conditions under which love thrives. And finally, of course, about the compulsion of the victim to resist injustice, to rescue himself – in Bendik Riis' instance through art.’