Academic journal article TheatreForum

COLLAPSE and RENEWAL: Icelandic Theatre after the Banking Crisis

Academic journal article TheatreForum

COLLAPSE and RENEWAL: Icelandic Theatre after the Banking Crisis

Article excerpt

Don't mess with the Vikings. They actually are, after all, very much the rugged marauders romanticized in literature and film from Beowulf to Kirk Douglas. Indicative of this resilience and panache is Iceland's schizophrenic response to the global financial crisis that began in 2008: the people seem simultaneously unfazed and existentially wiped out. But as if the forces of Icelandic nature had been awakened by the global bullies, in a strange yet somehow acutely appropriate sense of poetic justice, shortly after the meltdown, Eyjafjallajokull, one of several active volcanoes in Iceland, erupted and sent a cloud billowing west to cover northern Europe with a vengeful blanket of ash. The theatre community responded in a typically Nordic fashion: some groups looked inward, turning to an extreme sense of localism and soul-searching among their peers, while others preferred to view their particular malady in a global context. This perspective, admittedly, oversimplifies the issue, but it can be illustrative for outsiders bewildered by very idea of Iceland, a country with only 320,000 inhabitants living on an isolated volcanic rock in the middle of the North Atlantic.

In any event, the Icelandic attitude is neither militantly isolationist nor nationalistic. The most successful remedy to their isolation and ruin has been to continue to focus on international collaboration-at least in the theatre, the most local art, the most connected to the people, which at this time in Iceland's history as an independent nation is still very young. Perhaps it is because of its infancy, combined with its isolation, that much of the theatre in Iceland is derivative, both from necessity and default.

Bjarni Jonsson, playwright, co-founder and chairman of the LÓKAL-International Theatre Festival in Reykjavík and a board member for the Icelandic Association of Playwrights and Screenwriters, explains that Iceland, being a small isolated island country, faces a constant crisis. In his view the idea of a national identity is both resolved and ongoing. "Icelanders go abroad," he says, "but inevitably return. Here, you are significant. There, you are nobody." The theatre community and, by extrapolation, the populace generally do not as a rule feel threatened by integration into the larger sphere of Western Culture. "Icelanders think they are inventing something new," says Jonsson, "even if it has been done elsewhere, because they have very little chance to compare what they are doing to what others do."

Though they fear a loss of sovereignty if they were to join the political entity of the ever-expanding European Union, Icelanders are comfortable melding cultures. They seem predisposed to see themselves as citizens of a planet, not a rock. Perhaps because they have such a strong sense of space, and their identity is so deeply rooted in their geography, they simply do not feel threatened by foreign influences.

As in many Western European countries, the excitement of the 1970s settled into a period of complacency during the 80s and 90s, as if the experimentation and sociopolitical upheavals exhausted the creative spirit that had inspired previous decades of theatre radicals. Without speculating on the causes of the general malaise, most critics agree that the forms of social realism had become shop worn, if not absolutely decadent. Ragnheidur Skúladóttir, former Dean of the Theatre and Dance Department of the Icelandic Academy of the Arts and co-founder of LÓKAL-International Theatre Festival, traces the ennui and creative stagnation in Iceland to the design of the arts program at the Academy. Since 1976, she notes, the isolation of one fine arts discipline from another tended to maintain a traditionalist model, based on the historical affinity in Iceland for the "kitchen sink" social realism popularized in Britain by playwrights John Osborne, Shelagh Delaney, and Edward Bond, among others, which combined the well-made-play format with family drama. …

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