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THE NEW YORK THEATRE WIRE sm




ICELANDIC THEATER, 1975-2000
By HÁVAR SIGURJÓNSSON

This article is the transcript of a talk given at to the Scandinavia On Stage conference, NYC, April 19, 2001.
Hávar Sigujónsson is a dramaturg and critic from Iceland.

I.

In this introduction to Icelandic Theatre I will begin with a short historic review and then discuss the main trends in Icelandic drama for the last 3 decades, give or take a few years..

The last 25 years of the 20th century in Icelandic theatre have seen a number of significant changes. Let it be said that the 25 years prior to that were the first years of professional theatre activity in Iceland, with the opening of the National Theatre in 1950 and The Reykjavík Theatre Company turning fully professional in 1963. Akureyri theatre Company turned professional in 1972 and became thus the first and only professional theatre company outside the capital Reykjavík to date. But in order to map out the history in whole, the Reykjavík Theatre company was founded in 1897 and its profile was semi-professional, in that the actors were amateurs to a degree, they were not c professionally trained but had acquired their acting skills through practice. Their talent was second to none as this was the only outlet available. During the 30s and 40s a number of young people sought acting training overseas, to England and Denmark mostly, and returned to form the core of National Theatre's ensemble in 1950 along with the many of the older generation of actors and directors from the Reykjavík Theatre company. Contrary to the belief of many the Reykjavík Theatre company did not close shop but entered into a vigorous competition with the National, a situation which reached a new level when the RTC turned professional in 1963.

During the 60s a number of experimental theatre groups were established, short-lived most of them, but they had a strong impact on the established theatres as many of the groups members became their leading actors and directors during the seventies and the eighties. Many of those are still among our most influential theatre artists during the period.

Owing to the smallness of the Icelandic theatre community the influence of individuals on several aspects of Icelandic theatre is perhaps more apparent than elsewhere, but another characteristic of Icelandic theatre must be kept in mind. Most of the theatre ; practitioners in Iceland move in all waters, i.e. they may have established an experimental group but at the same time been working at the National Theatre or the Reykjavík Theatre Co. or even both; so ideas and methods of work have quickly spread among the community and never has there been a time when a particular method or style has been solely identified as the method or style of a particular group or individual. One way of looking at this is to say that experimental groups have neither had the time nor the opportunity to develop their own method or recognizable style, but it has also resulted in the so-called established theatres to follow closely the latest trends and developments on the sometimes hardly discernible Icelandic fringe.

II
In 1975 anew theatre group came into being that pointed the way ahead in many respects in Icelandic Theatre practice. The Peoples Theatre (Alpyduleikhusio) was the first professional company in the country which based its operation on touring the country all year round. In the late fifties and sixties a number of summer touring companies were operated mainly on a commercial basis. The advent of Icelandic state television in. 1966 made commercial touring summer-theatre a much riskier business than before. The People's Theatre was founded with a very different aim in mind.

It had a clearly defined social and political agenda which it followed through in its productions which were both in style and method far removed from the general production methods that were being used in the established theatres. The Peoples theatre did not come out of the blue. Its members were all seasoned theatre artists with years of professional experience behind them, as diverse as acting, directing, writing, choreographing, designing and music making. This all came into fruition in the two productions of the company, Krurnmagull and Skollaleikur, both plays written by Böđvar Guđmundsson. Although he is the author of several plays and stage adaptations his best work is in the field of historical narrative fiction and as such he belongs to a long line of Icelandic writers who deal with historical subjects in a time honored tradition. In Skollaleikur, "Blind mans Buff," which deals with events during Iceland's darkest period of history , the witch hunts of the 17th century , he successfully combined his Marxist view of history with real events of a period hitherto ignored by historical writers. The novelty of the playas a piece of writing was rested in the author's choice of period, and the play was a long overdue departure from the usual adulation of a glorified literary past.

Yet the two plays he wrote for the People's theatre owed most of their success to a their highly innovative and stylized production method, where commedia dell 'arte, modem choreography and music were used in a manner hitherto little encountered by the Icelandic theatre practitioners. "Blind mans Buff" remains a landmark in Icelandic theatrical history and has long become a theatrical legend and rightly so.

III
During the 80's a number of new groups were established, again most of them short-lived, as they were formed by young actors mostly who were creating work for themselves, but perhaps lacking in long term theatrical vision and the groups disappeared as quickly as they appeared when other more lucrative theatre work was on offer. Financial and personal consideration had its impact too, understandably so as most of those groups, were operated on an amateur level in regard to salaries, although the members were all professionally trained. The most significant of those enterprises was the Theatre group Emilia, led by director Gudjdn Pedersen and dramaturge Haflidi Arngrimsson.

IV
The nineties saw a significant change in the theatre groups from what had previously been the norm. The change may be divided into two broad categories. On the one hand in 1990 the first children's' theatre company was established, Moguleikhusid, which ten years later is still at large and with 18 productions behind it; a touring company which visits nearly every playschool and grammar school in the country every year. The official recognition has not been in accordance with the company's dedication to its mission and its general popularity. Furthermore Moguleikhusio has only produced its own original work and as such contributed significantly to the flora of Icelandic theatre literature for children. Other groups have appeared with similar goals in mind and of good purpose, touring productions for children and teenagers in the capital area mostly, and all contributing to the fact that children and young people of the nineties have experienced more theatre than the generations before them.

Another company came into being in 1995 which deserves some attention. .The Hafnarfjordur theatre company is a professional company which has dedicated itself to the production of new Icelandic drama. To date it has produced seven new plays, nearly all of which have been both artistic and commercial successes, a rare combination indeed. Since 1996 the company has received an annual state grant as well as a grant from Hafnarfjorđur, its municipal authorities. A well deserved position albeit much envied by many.

The general feeling during the nineties has been that of a growing theatre activity and the number of productions available to the general public during the height of the season is proof if this. On a given weekend some 25-30 professional productions have been on offer in capital area and some have indeed wondered how the companies manage to survive in an area of 150 thousand people, many of which never go the theatre. The attendance figures are staggering by any standards as together the companies are netting something in the region of 400 thousand sold seats per annum. The population of Iceland " is presently 285 thousand.

All the companies mentioned above deserve their credit for building up such a great demand for live theater and although the infrastructure of the theater community has not changed much, some groups have managed to carve a niche for themselves and arrive at an artistic definition. Others are still searching.

Writing
The playwrights of the period belong to three different generations. During the early seventies established playwrights were few, Jökull Jakobsson had made his strong debut in 1961 and kept his central place until his untimely death in 1978. Along with other playwrights of his generation, Oddur Björnsson and Birgir Engilberts they carved a way for the absurd element in Icelandic playwriting. Jakobsson had however the most sensitive ear for contemporary speech, and paved the way for the modern Icelandic stage dialogue. His plays contain elements of the absurd but his strongest feature as a playwright was subtle irony and satire of the newly forming Icelandic urban middle class.. The romantic realism of his plays is unmistakable if such a term makes sense at all.

In order to place Icelandic drama in its proper social and historical context it is necessary to highlight some of most profound social, political and economical changes that the Icelandic nation went through as a result of the Second world war, changes which form the basis of the modern Iceland as we know it. In 1944 Iceland declared its independence from the Kingdom of Denmark and the Icelandic Republic was founded. In 1951 a defense treaty with the Government of the USA was signed by both parties and since then the United States have operated a naval base and a few other military stations in Iceland. At the time and long afterwards many people in Iceland regarded this as tantamount to giving up the nation's sovereignty on the first morning of independence. The fishing industry in Iceland was modernized almost overnight in the late forties as a result of the Icelandic government receiving the Marshall aid. During the next two decades our society changed from being a rural agricultural society steeped in tradition into a modern urban consumer society. The speed with which this occurred affected the people profoundly and has been the main source of inspiration for our literary artist. The classic themes of conflict between urban and rural values, tradition versus modernity, introversion versus extroversion, have all been apparent in Icelandic post war drama and fiction. The political debate during the fifties, sixties and seventies was a mirror reflection of the state of world, left and right, east and west, and the American naval base in our country was regarded as a symbol of the political state of the world. Today no parliamentary parties seem to find political reasons to insist on the base being closed down. Either we are finally confident that the world is no longer divided between the bad and the good or we believe that our independence will not come to harm anymore, or perhaps the term has lost its emotional meaning in our ever more globalized world.

Of the same generation as Jakobsson was Guđmundur Steinsson who died in 1996 but had by that time written some 20 plays, 12 of which were produced during his lifetime. Steinsson was a dedicated dramatist, totally committed to the writing of plays and he wrote them without ever paying heed to popular demands or taste. His two most popular plays are from the late seventies,'Stundarfrđur" (a Brief Respite) and "Sólarferđ" (Holiday in the Sun.). "A brief Respite" became the one of the greatest hit of National Theatre to date, a play which focuses on the modem urban family, the parent generation has no time for either its children or its own parents, social frustration has become away of life, electrical gadgets and modem technology have replaced human communication. Steinsson was a thoroughly socially conscious writer who took as his subject matter the state of modem Iceland in the context of family relationship and was perhaps the sharpest critic of the growing materialism in icelandic society during the 70s and 80s. His last play was a sequel to "A Brief Respite," a study of the same family twenty years later, caught up in unemployment and drug abuse. It was a respectable attempt at a dramatic analysis of contemporary Iceland.

Birgir Sigurđsson was a strong newcomer in the early seventies and had two corn temporary social realist dramas produced in that decade but his most notable success was in 1986 with Dagur Vonar, "Day of Hope." It is arguably the most significant Icelandic play of that decade, a truly dramatic piece of writing, a modem tragedy, where a working , class family of two artistically bent brothers living with a widowed overworked mother, . her alcoholic lover and an insane sister, become the true representatives of the post war generation.

Mr. Sigurđsson has often been called the social-realist of Icelandic theatre but his best writing contains beautiful stage poetry in well crafted dialogue. After the success of "A Day of Hope" he turned his attention to the writing of novels but returned to the theatre in 1998 with a new play "Wishing Star."

It is not his best play, but perhaps expectations were unrealistic due to his long absence from the stage. It is a well made play by any standards indeed.

The playwright and director Kjartan Ragnarsson released his first play "Saumastofan" (The Knitting Shop) in 1975. Since then he has written several plays and adapted a number of .novels most if which have been enormously successful. During the 80s Kjartan was the unofficial artistic champion of Reykjavík Theatre company, as his plays more than anything else defined the popular character of the company and the box office successes of one production of his after another kept the company financially afloat. A golden goose indeed.

Sigurđur Pálsson, poet and dramatist, wrote his first play, "Hlaupvidd 6, Bore 6," in 1977. Since then he has written several plays most of which have been produced by Leikfélag Reykjavíkur. His latest play, "Einhver í dyrunum" (Someone at the Door) had its premier this September. A grand actress has shut herself away from the world in her home and refuses to go out amongst people. Her husband, who collects butterflies and works in the supervision industry , has no luck in getting her back to reality .When a young admirer enters her life, she is forced to review past events, that caused her to quit her acting career. In this play of language, theatre and madness, the actress is haunted by ghosts of the past until she breaks down and manages to bring her discomfort and pain to speech.

Ólafur Haukur Simonarson arrived as a playwright at the end of the seventies and has turned out to be the most prolific of them all. Starting out as a radical socialist in his play "Blómarósir" (Factory Flowers), a play about the plight of women working in a fish processing factory , he showed an unmistakable talent for dramatic writing in "Milli Skinns og horunds" (Under your Skin), produced at the National Theatre in 1982. This play is written in a style of modern stage realism which Icelandic writers had not employed before. It is realistic in character portrayal, dialogue and emotional motivation, but the narrative structure is epic, making use of cinematic technique in the juxtaposition of scenes. The play is a grim portrayal, utterly devoid of socialist romanticism, of a contemporary working class family in Iceland of the early 80s. It is a political play in the sense that it is a disturbing analysis of a class of people who have lost their social identity and seek status in material possessions and find emotional gratification in alcohol, violence and sex, and significantly in that order.

In Bilaverkstređi Badda, Baddi' s Garage, Simonarson turned his dramatic skills to create a psychothriller where the action centers around the return of an old friend to the . family of widowed mechanic Baddi and his three grown-up children. A story of murder and betrayal which later was turned into a movie by the title Rust and directed by Lams. Ýmis Óskarsson.

Simonarson then moved into lighter fare with the musical "On cold Ice" and the play "Meat" which both have to be regarded as the build-up to his strongest play to date, "Hafiđ" (The Sea 1992 ) where all his best features as a dramatic writer are combined into one, the dialogue is funny and sharp, the characterization is clear and the two act structure is a natural part of the dramatic fabric.

The social comment is unmistakable but is cleverly integrated into action and situation. It is a play which takes on many important contemporary themes at the same time. At the center is an old fishing magnate in a fishing town. Owing to the new fishing legislation which was passed in parliament in the mid-eighties the traditional fishing rights of the area are now his personal capital- a central political issue in Iceland ever since -and the family have gathered round the dying pater, all intent on having their share of the fortune. The play deals skillfully with the issue of ownership of the greatest national source of wealth, the fish in the sea. If the fishing rights are sold to a company in a different part of the country the town has lost its means of survival. Thus the play takes on another . central political theme which is the future of the rural townships around the country in the , face of a growing centralization of the capital area of Reykjavík.

After "The Sea" Simonarson has written the musical play "Endurance and Tears," set in Reykjavík in the 60s with music of the period after which he successfully adapted two of his most popular novels under the collective title "Hullabaloo". This he followed with a social drama, "Teachers Vacancies," and his latest play "The Idiots" has proven a great success this season; a social comedy about the sixties generation now grown desperately middle aged.

Árni Ibsen made his debut in 1984 with his play "Skjaldbakan kemst Ţangađ lika" (The Turtle gets there too). A highly literary play which deals with the relationship between the two american poets Esra Pound and William Carlos Williams. A fine poet himself, Ibsen turned his efforts toward comedy and satire, and after two attempts at the form ("Afsakiđ hlé," "Fiskar á Ţurru landi") he unexpectedly produced a highly dramatic piece, "Elin Helena," which is serious search into the possibilities of theatrical form where the dramatic tension is created by constant shifts in time, real time is no more important or more physical than historical time, on stage the mind is just as real as the body. It is the search of a young woman for the true story of her family history, which takes her to the United States as her father was a soldier stationed in Iceland during his time in the military service. A play about the search for the real identify of a people faced with half a century of friendly spiritual occupation.

Mr. Ibsen followed this by combining his findings into his greatest success to date, Himnaríki (Heaven) 1995, a marvelously sharp social comedy based on the original staging idea that simultaneous action is carried out for two sets of audiences which change places in the interval. A group of young people get together at a summer cottage and the plan is to have the greatest weekend of their lives. But for people who have the greatest weekend of their lives on a regular basis the attempt is futile and the play is a hilarious description of a generation of a well provided for super-consumers who have no greater significant ambition than to fulfill their own physical desires.

Árni has since then written the farce, "Ef ég vaeri gullfiskur" (If l were a Goldfish, 1996 ), and another madcap comedy "Ađ ebilifu" (Forever, 1997). As a dramatist Árni Ibsen has been constantly exploring the possibilities of theatrical form, the nature of the dramatic. character, although his greatest comic achievement has been in creating theatrical language for characters who are utterly unable to express themselves verbally.

With the arrival of this group of dramatists mentioned above, a certain change in tone and content is obvious. Comedy and satire, irony and wit took over from social-realism on the one hand and the slightly absurd, slightly symbolical drama on the other. I have to point out that that during the same period the most popular theatre pieces have been in the form of the adaptation of epic literature. both modern and classic. The latest being Kjartan Ragnarsson's monumental adaptation of "Sjálfstrett fólk" (Independent People) by Nobel prize novelist Halldór Laxness for the National Theatre: a six hour epic which was staged and performed in two separate productions.

Women playwrights made their mark during the 70s and 80s with Svava Jakobsdóttir carving the way with her first play, "Hvađ er í blýhólknum" (The Cornerstone, 1970). Jakobsdóttir is among our most influential writers of her generation. born in 1926. she is ) primarily a writer of short stories and novels.

The poet Nina Björk Ánadóttir (1941-2000) turned out some very fine dramatic poetry during the 70s. Of the same generation are Steinunn Jóhannesdóttir and Ţórunn Sigurđardóttir who have both written successful modern and historical plays. but the strongest representation from the women's side is undeniably Hrafnhildur Hagalín who made her incredible debut in 1990 with her award winning play "Ég er meistarinn. (I am the Maestro )." It is a remarkably mature study of the relationship between original talent and the struggle for artistic perfection. Two classical music students. guitarists. are living together. the woman has the talent and the man has the ambition. The triangle of love. ambition and art is closed when the master arrives on the scene to convince the girl of her responsibilities.

Hrafnhildur has only recently released her second play, "Hregan Elektra" (Easy now. Electra), a play which is a complete departure from the first play. In "Easy Now Electra," Hrafnhildur explores the relationship between two actresses - a mother and her daughter. The play starts off some time after the two actresses have finished their first performance : together of a show based on the art of improvisation. As it turns out it was a show they could not finish.

Now they are locked inside a room "imaginary or real" and here they continue their game of improvisation while a video recording of the fateful performance is projected onto a screen at regular intervals. We follow them on stage and on screen as they gradually lose control of their situation, and the disturbing truth about their relationship is unveiled. The third actor, a young man, plays the role of stage manager, guard, or even Orestes, omnipresent but silent. Easy now, Electra, is a complex theatrical study into the nature of theatre as a medium of truth, a study of time as a concrete theatrical device and perhaps also a study of theatrical literary history as a living component of the relationship between the actor and his audience.

Kristin Ómarsdóttir has produced two plays to date, but her main sphere has been that of short stories and novels. Her play Love Story III was the first Icelandic play- to take on . male homosexuality as its central theme. Of the same generation is Bjarni Jónsson who to date has produced one play, "Kaffi (Coffee )" for the professional stage. Both plays were nominated as the Icelandic candidates for the Scandinavian drama prize in for the years 1998 and 2000. Ţorvaldur Ţorsteinsson has his artistic origins in the visual arts. He started out as a writer of short radio plays, which he performed himself in a style utterly devoid of dramatic expression. His cynical comic talent was quickly recognized as well as his sharp eye for the absurd and comically meaningless in normal everyday dialogue. He turned this to its best effect in "Talespin," his first full length drama for the stage which might be described as a situation comedy written in the wrong key and designed to be performed out of tune. Ţorvaldur has gained a solid reputation as an author of children's books, two of those have gained international recognition for being among the best written in the genre during the nineties. The titles of which are "My name is Betterby, you may call me Bobo." and "Are you Betterby, I have an important message." He has turned his talent in writing for children to good use in two plays, the first of which, "The Message Bag is a grand scale" musical adventure full of magic, dwarfs, elves and exotic characters. The second of the two children plays is "Love's Fable " which is the simple tale of the adventure of the poor boy who wins the princess as result of a heroic deed.

The play is written in rhymed verse which is a novelty in Icelandic children drama but turned out to be part of play's public appeal. His latest play, "Father and Son or Me and my boy," is a dramatic piece laced with comic irony as it dives into a merciless portrayal of the relationship between an alcoholic father and his co-dependent son. The dramatic screw is turned a few notches when the past catches up with them in an unexpected way and their lives are exposed for what they really are. The strength of the play lies in the fact that the revelation of old truths is not likely to change the present situation in any way. "Father and Son" is a strong addition to the impressive body of work Ţorvaldur Ţorsteinsson has produced to date and all of them suggest that his primary concern in his ; dramatic writing is based on his fascination with the visual power of theatre as place of magic and of language as a thoroughly limited means of communication.

Ólafur Jóhann Ólafsson has to date written one play, "Four of Hearts," and his dramatization of the novel "Feast of Snails," is currently running in one of Reykjavík's independent theatres. Most of Ólafsson's creative talent has been dedicated to the writing of novels and his reputation as a novelist is solid in Iceland and elsewhere. "Four of Hearts" and "The Feast of Snails" are both plays that are faithful to the Ibsenite naturalistic convention and revolve around a single dramatic idea, set in a single theatrical situation. In "Four of Hearts" we witness the annual reunion of four old friends who have kept together since their college years. Their friendship is however based on a mutual agreement on keeping mum on old misdemeanors but now that the fifth partner who has traditionally kept the lid on the can of worms is unexpectedly absent the old truths and half-truths are gradually revealed during the course of the evening. Of the same nature is the stage adaptation of novel "Feast of Snails." An old millionaire is of the habit of inviting a group of well chosen guests to an annual feast of snails. This time an unexpected guest turns up and the past catches up with the old man for the first and probably the last time also.

Both plays have proved immensely popular which somewhat defies their old-fashioned nature. Ólafsson does not show himself to be a dramatist of experiment or a social critic. His choice of dramatic situations is from a well known book of theatrical recipes but to his credit he cooks a solid meal, where the appetizer, main course and desert are meticulously served.

V
A growing tendency from the theatre practitioners over the last 5-10 years has been to produce their own material. This has had a two-sided effect. The positive side is that productions have been more visual and theatrical. The inspiration being in many cases the imaginary and improvisational skills of the ensemble. At the same time one could- argue that the literary value of the productions has suffered. Some of these productions have been simple and naive concoctions, but have enjoyed a great popularity due to their theatrical energy and visual force. In the best of cases such work has spawned new writing talent. Young aspiring writers have in the last few years been drawn to the theatre, perhaps because they feel the energy and creative power that it originates and it is to be hoped that we will see a burst of productions created by the acting ensemble but strongly supported by scripts of lasting literary value. Basically, good theatre.[NYTW]

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