Monday, February 27, 2023

Be the Wolf

Chapter 9 of Search For a Dancer, a serial memoir about a week I spent in Iceland. Mondays on Flippism is the Key
I can’t even begin to explain it, much less justify it.
The stage play Vertu úlfur (Be a Wolf) is based on Héðin Unnsteinsson's autobiographical narrative of the same name.

I saw it tonight in the National Theatre (Þjóðleikhúsið). The show took me on a crazy journey through the “… dangerous places of the mind into a world of anarchy and despair and back again, the struggle of a man who manages to break out of the vicious cycle and manages to turn his most terrifying experience into the strength needed to change.” The book was nominated for the Icelandic Literature Prize and was made into a solo play by director Unni Ösp Stefánsdóttir.

This really pushed me out of my comfort zone with its 100 minutes of Björn Thors’ nearly nonstop monologs in Icelandic. The stagecraft and Björn’s masterful emoting and body language enabled me to be thoroughly enthralled throughout.

Why would anyone go to see a play in a foreign country, performed in an incomprehensible language? I’ve done stranger things, but not many. What began as a whim in 2004 has become a compulsion with me: Icelandic live theatre. I lost my Þjóðleikhúsið virginity attending a performance of Þetta er allt að koma (“Things Are Going Great”). My mind was blown that night; perhaps this infatuation is actually my attempt to pick up the pieces. Tonight was to be dedicated to the intense one-man play Vertu úlfur (Be the Wolf), based on the book by Héðin Unnsteinsson. This production had been a rousing success, with over 100 performances seen by tens of thousands of people, including many middle-school students who were there in abundance that night:
Between trigger warnings and censorship, I can’t see that a performance as intense as this one would be allowed to have an audience of older children and young teens in the U.S.A.

The play opened with a closed curtain. A man in a suit (actor Björn Thors) stepped out with a pocket full of sand. He used the sand and a piece of chalk to draw a circular diagram of his family and its history. Out of this simple introduction came the story of his struggle with manic-depression, two hours of intense acting that enthralled me with its vivid portrayal of a man struggling with his inner demons. His body language became a sublime dance, choreography of the human spirit. The stagecraft was just as brilliant—the minimal sets were transformed again and again with its archetypal imagery (a rain shower! a forty-foot-long duvet! a road to nowhere!) and evocative lighting.

A typical tourist, unless they happened to walk into the theatre’s box office out of curiosity about the theatre’s imposing facade, would be unaware of the miracles this venue performs on a regular basis. The Reykjavík area has a population of about 200,000. And if that wasn’t enough culture for one town, the city boasts of another live theatre complex of equal stature, plus several smaller companies.

Before the play started I was sitting on a bench in the outer lobby when woman came in and sat down next to me. We started talking about Icelandic theatre, she was a regular and I mentioned Hallgrímmur Helgason’s Þetta er allt að koma. She had known Hallgrímmur since he was three years old! She also mentioned what a great man he was—the second time I heard someone say that today!

When the woman who my bench-mate was waiting for came in she said to us: “Ah! Brúðkaupsbekkurinn!”

Search for a Dancer Index…

By Professor Batty


Blogger Professor Batty said...

Top image: Þjóðleikhúsið

Blogger jono said...

Talked to an Icelander at the Greater Minnesota Horse Expo about 15 years ago. He was from the Akureyri area and said he knew some of my relatives. It's a small world and a small country and a fun place to be no matter the activity. Friendly and very accessible people.

Blogger Professor Batty said...

You can say that again! Wonderful country.

Blogger jono said...

P.S. Due to a busy life (changing jobs,etc.) I have been absent from your musings and will be catching up. Hope you don't mind a comment or two on previous blog entries. It feels good to read them again.

Blogger Professor Batty said...

I had wondered about that, glad to have you back!

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