Sveinn Einarsson[1]

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The question is somewhat the following: has the economic collapse not only of three leading banks in Iceland, but in fact the whole nation, had an effect on the theatre in such a country? Unfortunately, such a question happens to be appropriate. Let me begin by first stating some facts.

Iceland, the smallest of the five Nordic countries, has a population of only 320,000 inhabitants. In terms of OECD-rating, Iceland is generally thought of as a welfare society with a comparatively high income rate. There are seven universities in Iceland in addition to a National Library, National Museum, National Gallery, a professional Symphonic Orchestra and a National Theatre (Þjóðleikhúsið); in fact, Iceland has all of the usual cultural symbols. Under the given circumstances, there is generally huge cultural activity and a high educational level throughout Iceland.

Apart from the National Theatre in Reykjavík, the capital city of Iceland, there is another large theatre company named the Leikfélag Reykjavíkur (‘The Reykjavík Theatre Company’), performing in the Borgarleikhús (‘The Municipal or City Theatre’), and partly financed by the municipal authorities; the Icelandic Dance Company is also housed there (with subventions from the state). The Icelandic Opera, also subvented by the state, performs at the New Music House Harpa, and is otherwise the site of The Icelandic Symphony Orchestra and a venue for more than 1,500 concerts per year, ranging from pop groups to chamber music and prominent foreign musicians. There are three more professional, community-based theatres such as the Akureyri Theatre, a state-run theatre school (a division of the Arts University) and an additional ten to twenty so-called ‘free professional theatre groups’ (financed partly by a special budget). Some of these groups have the tendency to be short-lived. Furthermore, there is a tradition for an intensive amateur movement throughout villages and in the countryside, also with some financial support, especially if the ‘theatre societies’ put on new Icelandic plays or plays for children.

Two characteristics need to be mentioned. Firstly, for decades the rate of new plays produced in Iceland has been high when compared to its neighbour states, especially in the 1970s and 1980s when it reached 40 percent of the total repertoire year after year. Lately, the small groups have been especially prominent in this field, including the often short-lived professional dance groups that also are part of the scene. Secondly, theatre attendance–and theatre interest in general–has been exceptionally high; year after year the theatres in Iceland can boast of over 300, 000 theatre-goers, whilst in some seasons this number is even higher.[2] This situation became especially apparent after the opening of the National Theatre in 1950 and has remained so ever since.

It is now important to consider the situation during the fall in 2008. The season before, 2007-2008, had been relatively ‘normal’ and in no way exceptional, neither qualitatively nor quantitatively. It became popular in those years for more private investors to become increasingly willing to pay their tribute, especially if there was a question of ‘outlet’; that is, to sponsor some venture into foreign countries, as in the case of the well-known group Vesturport. In fact, the financial speculates were called ‘outlet Vikings.’ This, however, did not change the structure or the basic financing of normal activities. Yet many small groups benefitted from this increased support, even if in sponsoring, which was a relatively new phenomenon, no tendency to take financial risks in supporting truly innovative or controversial things was visible.

What then was a ‘normal’ season? Since both of the ‘big theatres’ in Reykjavík possess three stages of different sizes, it was–and still is–not unusual that there are up to fifteen to twenty offerings theatre-wise each week during high season (September to June), since both of these leading theatres are repertory theatres. The biggest auditoriums have the capacity to house around 500 theatre-goers, whilst the smaller stages have capacity for 100-200 audience members. In comparison, in the new building Harpa, the biggest auditorium has a capacity of around 1,600 people.

Strangely enough, there is not a great difference between the repertory of the two big theatres, even if lately in the City Theatre there is a slightly marked tendency towards more boulevard-like choices; its subvention is also not comparative to that which the National Theatre enjoys, which for years financed on average, 65% of the Theatre’s expenses. Yet each winter, both theatres offer one or more classical plays, new modern plays (often inspired by successes on the West End or Broadway), new Icelandic plays (the few old Icelandic ‘classics’ unfortunately neglected in recent years), a children’s play (often one big production on the main stages, and some smaller productions on the other stages) in addition to a musical.

Since the National Theatre is a state institution, statistics follow the calendar year. During the year 2007 there were 10 new productions at the National Theatre, and from the previous season five more to be seen. These productions included a new Icelandic musical for adults, another for children plus two more new Icelandic plays, one of which was for children. There were adaptations of Chekov’s Ivanov and Kafka’s Die Verwandlung (the latter in collaboration with Vesturport). Among the productions from 2006 was Euripides’ Bacchantae, and among the new plays in 2007 were works by Schimmelpfennig, Eric-Emanuel Schmidt and Carole Fréchette. Some of the smaller productions failed to appeal to the audiences, but the total number of guests amounted to 7, 346.

Admittedly, the year 2007 was not one of the best for this theatre and, in the following years, the number of the guests at the National Theatre reached over 90,000 each year. By comparison, during the 2008-9 season at the City Theatre there were five new productions on the main stage: Puce a l´Oreille by Feydeau, Pinocchio, Besuch der alten dame (Dürrenmatt), A Sound of Music, and a new Icelandic musical. Highlights from the small stages included: You are here (treating the crash), Sarah Kane´s Blasted, furthermore a home-made improvisation, The seven deathly Sins(based on Dante) and Oscar by Eric Emanuel Schmidt. The number of guests totalled 116, 000 in the main auditorium, and 20, 000 on the small stages.

In order to fill in, if not to complete, the picture of Reykjavík, let us mention also The Icelandic Opera which, during the 2007-8 season, was performing in the old cinema Gamla bíó with two productions and an audience of 15, 000 people which, in 2008-9, was reaching 20, 000. The Icelandic Dance Company, with three new productions, was also performing extensively abroad and had an audience of around 6,000 people. As for the small independent theatre groups, which in those years grew in number, their central office estimate that for the 2007-8 season the number of spectators at these theatres amounted to roughly 178,000: a record year. Altogether, the total number of theatre-goers in Iceland during these years amounted to 470, 000 spectators.

Scene from “The Swan,” choreographed by Lára Stefánsdóttir and performed by the Íslenski dansflokkurinn (The Icelandic Dance Company), 2013.
Scene from “The Swan,” choreographed by Lára Stefánsdóttir and performed by the Íslenski dansflokkurinn
(The Icelandic Dance Company), 2013.

So much for the quantitative analysis. As for the quality of Icelandic theatre, it is generally considered that theatrical performances are, on the whole, somewhat comparable to what is offered in neighbouring countries. Productions by ‘fashionable’ foreign guest-directors are not necessarily more successful than those signed by domestic directors; unfortunately, foreign critics do not too often bother to pay the Icelandic theatre a visit, and even those in the world of the theatre are afraid of languages that are not mainstream. Of course, the quality is uneven: there are, as elsewhere, flops and hits. It should also be remarked that, among the successes, are often the new Icelandic plays. If the new Icelandic plays appeared less frequently in the nineties and in the beginning of this century than they used to do, this is not unlike the picture seen elsewhere, at least in Europe and the States. The best talents seek to express themselves in other medias whilst the frequent revivals of the great plays of the mid-twentieth century, welcome as they are, do not totally compensate for the lack of creativity in writing for the stage today.

Scene from the Icelandic play “Utan gatta” (OFF TARGET) by Sigurdur Palsso, directed by Kristin Johannesdottir at the The National Theatre of Iceland, 2009.
Scene from the Icelandic play “Utan gatta” (OFF TARGET) by Sigurdur Palsso, directed by Kristin Johannesdottir at
The National Theatre of Iceland, 2009.

Such a picture is common in European theatre-life. Before, novels or plays were transferred to the stage whereas now successful novels and films are transformed into to staged versions. While literature has been enriched by novels of Pamuk, Mahfouz, the Japanese and the Latin-Americans, theatre has not widened its outlook to the same extent. The theatre’s focus has been on formal experiments, ‘side-specific,’ and devised works, following post-modern tendencies and concentrating more on so-called ‘self-ransacking’ rather than socially-oriented studies or satires with a wider horizon or, even, poetic texts.

The Icelandic theatre does not, in general, possess any special ‘original’ peculiarities that set it apart from European theatre. Yet even if the theatre’s model is often fetched from other countries, not least in the musical field, there are however, like in all countries, certain aspects which could be, in the UNESCO-sense, characterized as an example of the cultural diversity of the world, based on the language and the experience of history, manners, mentality, climate and political frames. The Icelandic language is indeed at the core of cultural identity, more so than it is based on geographic or political entities. There are, however, now over 100 nationalities with just as many languages that live in Iceland, either permanently or temporarily.

Icelandic, like Greek, is one of the ‘old’ languages in Europe and is spoken by only by 3-400.000 people in comparison to 329 million Spanish-speaking people, 328 million English-speaking, not to mention the 845 million Mandarin-speaking individuals.[3] The popularity of the theatre in Iceland has its roots in old cultural traditions leading to immense amateur activities which seem to be quite unique, and lead to the blooming professional theatre in the twentieth century.[4] These transitions followed the changes of the structure in society from rural to dominantly urban settlement.

Scene from the Icelandic play “Svartur hundur prestins” (The Priest’s Black Dog), at the National Theatre of Iceland, 2011.
Scene from the Icelandic play “Svartur hundur prestins” (The Priest’s Black Dog), at the National Theatre of Iceland, 2011.

Anywhere in the world, theatre mirrors its society. It is therefore not unexpected that a theatre in a country exposed to an economic slump would be badly afflicted. Again, however, we have to turn to statistics for a comparison on which to base our judgement upon. Space does not allow us to dwell upon the crash in its highly interesting details; the happenings were of course part of the general recession on a world scale during the last five years, but the crash remains a more home-made disaster.

The effects of the crash can be measured in many ways. There is the question of cuts in subvention, since practically all theatre activity in Iceland is subvented in some way or other. There is the question of whether fewer shows were produced after the fall. There is also the question of whether theatre attendance has decreased. Has the funding system changed in some way? Are the sponsors still there? How has the general economic situation in Iceland impacted upon the salaries of the actors and others involved in the theatre? Finally, has the artistic standard of the productions themselves suffered?

Scene from “Jonsmessunott” (Midsummernight), by Havar Sigurjonsson, directed by Harpa Arnardóttir, at The National Theatre of Iceland, 2012.
Scene from “Jonsmessunott” (Midsummernight), by Havar Sigurjonsson, directed by Harpa Arnardóttir, at The National Theatre of Iceland, 2012.

In the calendar year of 2012 there were a total of nine own-productions that could be seen at the National Theatre on its three stages, although three of these plays had been produced the year before. These plays included yet another adaptation of one of Laxness´ novels The Light of the World (f.p. end of December 2011), a new production of the Long Day´s Journey into Night by O´Neill, the fourth production of that play since it first appeared in the fifties, a new production of the musical Les Miserables and Pinter´s The Birthday Party. There was also a new Icelandic play, Midsummer Night, by Hávar Sigurjónsson (on the small stage), in addition to an English adaptation of Goldoni´s Il servitore di due padrone that failed to interest, a new production of the Norwegian (and Nordic) classic children´s play The animals in the Hakkabakke Forest, popular as ever, and a revival of the Irish Pockets full of Stones 10 years after its first production, but with the same cast. Then around Christmas 2012 came a new production of Macbeth. Revivals from 2011 included a puppet show for adults and children alike, based on Hemingway´s The Old Man and the Sea. Altogether there were 29 events at the theatre, if all is counted. In short, there is no change in repertoire policy. It may also to be noticed that the number of spectators at the National Theatre in the year 2012 amounted to 98, 789. In other words, there was no recession of public interest, even though own-productions were slightly fewer than in 2007.

The Icelandic Opera produced two operas between 2011 and 2012: La Boheme and Il trovatore which, with one exception, featured an all-Icelandic cast (even double-casting many roles). The total number of audience members was 24.560 people. The Opera now produced its shows in an auditorium three times bigger than the auditorium used in 2007-08. The Icelandic Opera seems to be the institution (actually independent but with subvention) affected by the heaviest cuts, losing up to 50 percent of its official support. The two years following 2008-9 already set their mark, the result being that each season witnessed only one production each year, whilst the number of attendants decreased to half of its former numbers. The budget of the Icelandic Dance Company was also cut by 22 percent after the crash. The number of guests, however, remained similar at around 6.000, both home and abroad.

Scene from “The Swan,” choreographed by Lára Stefánsdóttir, by the Íslenski dansflokkurinn (The Icelandic Dance Company), 2013.
Scene from “The Swan,” choreographed by Lára Stefánsdóttir, by the Íslenski dansflokkurinn (The Icelandic Dance Company), 2013.

I leave out the theatre in Akureyri on purpose which, after a certain bloom during the latter-half of the first decade of the 21st century, went through difficulties. These difficulties were more a domestic affair than directly influenced by the crash, although Iceland’s economic problems may have had an impact on the theatre’s mind-set and mentality. On the other hand, the new theatre Gaflaraleikhúsið in Hafnarfjörður started up during the years which we are concentrating on, and this theatre was full of optimism but with small support. This group was following in the footsteps of the Hafnarfjarðarleikhúsið that had concentrated especially on producing new Icelandic plays for two decades, a remarkable achievement despite the results being uneven. In 2012 Gaflaraleikhúsið produced, among other things, a rendering of the Adventures of Baron Münchhausen. As an example of what the other groups are now doing, a mime production called Fastur (‘Tied’) may be mentioned, which was performed in the new venue of Norðurpóllinn, where most groups without financial means perform, a Danish co-production of the Nordic House with the Theatre Republic in Copenhagen, a satire on the consumerist society, and yet another ad-hoc group with an experimental study into the effect of political leanings on behaviour and life-style.

As it has already been observed, there were many offerings by small groups in different venues: Tjarnarbíó, Austurbær, Gamla bíó, The Nordic House (an original children’s play by Helga Arnalds, called The Monster My little Sister), Iðnó (the old home of Leikfélag Reykjavíkur) amongst many others. One marked difference between these groups is the fact that many groups choose or are forced into collaboration with the big companies, where the facilities are. Some think that such collaboration is not a healthy tendency; the small groups would serve more as an alternative to the established theatres if they were more independent. There is, however, a somewhat economic reason for this, as one need only mention the advertisements and publicity side of this collaboration; otherwise, the collaboration can be seen in different forms with regards to financing and facilities.

Such collaboration has been the case of the City Theatre’s productions in particular, for instance the show Tengdó (Mother-in-Law), which rightly was one of the most memorable offerings in 2012, and was also an example of collaboration with a small group. A much publicized collaboration that same spring with the more well-known Vesturport called Bastards did, on the other hand, prove to be a disappointment. Some of the earlier productions of Vesturport that have toured the world, however, grew out of such a collaboration, for example Romeo and Juliet, Woyzzeck and Faust and, later, like Die Verwandlungwhich was produced extensively world-wide, whereas other co-productions of Vesturport failed.

The number of new productions at the City Theatre in the season 2011-12 was thirteen; 98.000 theatre-goers filled the auditorium of the big stage and nearly 24.000 spectators watched productions on the small stage, which was approximately the same as five years earlier. These productions included the Wizard of Oz, The Cherry Orchard, Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander and a new play by the Mayor of Reykjavík entitled Hotel Volkswagen. Then a dramatization of the new best-selling Icelandic novel appeared, An Answer to Helga´s Letter, which was produced as the above-mentioned Tengdó. In addition, there was another co-production – Waiting for Godot – this time with an all-female cast. There was also a cabaret satirising the Icelandic notion of identity. These productions were all collaborations and not included in the statistics of the Theatre’s own-productions. There were, however, some interesting new plays by Sarah Kane (Blasted), Dennis Kelly, Haidi Mouawad (Incendies) and Schimmelpfennig (Der goldene Drache) on the small stages.

In 2012, the fall season opened with a production of The Treasure Island, as well as a revival of the comedy Same Time Next Year, a production of Logan’s Red (on the painter Mark Rothko), the above-mentioned Bastards and a new, first play by one of the most prolific Icelandic film-makers. In short, there were as many productions as before, and no noticeable change in the choice of plays. Towards the end of 2012 came a production of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. Such a list helps paint a picture of the National Theatre in 2012. The number of theatre-goers attending the institutional theatre rose to 305, 500 between 2009 and 2010 (the latest available statistic), but for the independent groups, who seem to have suffered most by the crash, this number had sunk to 156,000. Altogether, it is evident that there was no recess in theatre attendance. In addition, it can be mentioned that roughly 36.000 spectators attended amateur performances.

One more field might be mentioned. Before the crash, both the state’s TV and radio stations produced a certain amount of plays every year. The Icelandic productions have, of late, disappeared entirely from the TV and there is, according to verbal estimation from those responsible for the radio plays, a 70 percent reduction in their production. Now, the focus is only on new Icelandic plays. The department used to have up to three employees taking care of the task; now one part-time employee is left. The reason for these changes is not only to be explained by the overall economic crisis, however; it is also an expression of other factors, speaking in terms of cultural policies.

A special case is worth mentioning: Möguleikhúsið. For 20 years, Möguleikhúsið has been the only permanent theatre concentrating on plays for children. As a result of the crash, Möguleikhúsið lost its official subvention and subsequently its permanent venue. The theatre continues, however, to struggle on as touring troupe mainly in schools. Fortunately no suggestions were voiced to close other theatres, even if the existence of the Icelandic Theatre Company was threatened. It has for years been poorly funded and the dancers are still too few. Nonetheless, this survey of the theatre and its landscape is drawn up here in such detail so as to stress that, in spite of the economic restraint, it would be unfair not to acknowledge the vitality of the Icelandic theatre, four years after the economic collapse.

Now it is important to consider the economic conditions in more concrete terms. In 2007 The National Theatre obtained nearly 1.000.000 million Icelandic krónur from the state. In 2012, state subvention amounted to approximately 680 million krónur. There is, according to the Central Bank’s official statistics, an inflation rate of 4.6 percent and, if measured by the 2012 status, this amounts to a recession of over 30 percent. The statistics clearly show that there was an economic recession, and the theatre met this crisis by cutting down on the number of productions. The salaries of actors and other theatre workers seem, however, to have been consistent with other employees in the country; the salaries of theatre employees even augmented twice during this period, although only slightly. As for the subvention given by the Reykjavík municipal authorities to the City Theatre, in 2012 it amounts to 35 million Icelandic krónur. In 2009, the subvention was 49 million, which means that today it should equal 57 million krónur.

The question of whether the cuts in subvention affected the artistic results, in terms of whether the productions in 2012 are believed to be on a lesser level than those in 2007, is of course a question that is rather subjective. Yet this question can in no way be maintained if we use the reactions of the critics and the interest of the public as a measurement. I will leave it at that. At least one cannot assert that the eagerness to try something new has suffered; there is, in all honesty, still a certain boldness in the theatre’s choice of subjects, including the established theatres. As for being inspired by the theme of the crash in society as a whole, surprisingly few works have succeeded in adding anything to the intense debate that has otherwise been going on. The most successful in this respect has been the small Mind Group, working in collaboration with the City Theatre and producing a series of satirical shows on the matter of the economic crisis, of which the above-mentioned Here and Now is the best example.

We have seen that the economic crash has indeed affected Icelandic theatre in many ways, like it has in most other fields of society. For a couple of years sponsorship became practically non-existent but, even worse, official support suffered cuts like in all the other branches, such as health care, the educational field, communication and construction projects, to name but a few. Investments were at a low ebb and still are. Yet people still flocked to the theatre. It should also be noticed that at the same time, the opening of the new Concert Hall, Harpa, in 2011 totally changed the music landscape and drew nearly one million music lovers to its events.

In terms of general information, there is 5.6 percent unemployment in Iceland at the beginning of the year 2013, whilst economic growth amounts to 2.6 percent (2011), inflation in December 2012 showed 4.2 percent and the central government’s accounts showed that the debts amount to 1.920.517 million Icelandic krónur. It is estimated that in the year 2013, a balance will be reached and that Iceland will start paying back its debts.

The conclusion of this special study is thus somewhat paradoxical. While official support given to the theatres, as to the arts in general, has been withdrawn considerably, it seems not to have affected the eagerness of the general public to go to the theatre; in some cases, this is obviously on the contrary. This enthusiasm is in spite of the effects of the crash on family expenditure. Since serious cuts to the welfare system, to elderly people’s pensions and to the arts are generally looked upon as temporary, there is no feeling of disbelief in the theatre or its future function in society. Whether this is an argument for the attitude towards the theatre, claiming that it is not necessary to support the theatre in the way it has enjoyed in the last six decades, remains to be seen. The other argument would be, then, that the popularity of the theatre shows the importance that Icelanders lay upon activity associated with the theatre, and therefore it is self-evident that means should be provided to see the theatre blossom.


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[1] Sveinn Einarsson (1934-) holds an honors degree in theatre and philosophy from the University of Stockholm and a Ph.D from the University of Iceland. He was the artistic director of the Reykjavík Theatre Company (1963-72), the National Theatre of Iceland (1972-83), and the Reykjavík Arts Festival 1998-2001, among others. He has directed over 100 plays for the stage and television, from Greek tragedies to modern plays. He is the author of nine stage plays plus several films and plays for television and the radio. He is also the author of seven books on the theatre, including two volumes of the history of Icelandic Theatre. He was the first recipient of the Icelandic Theatre Award for Life-long Achievement in Theatre (2004).
[2] All statistical information is based on surveys from the Icelandic Statistic Bureau (Hagstofa Íslands) and from the theatres themselves. My special thanks go to Mr. Ragnar Karlsson of the Hagstofa.
[3] Ethnologue. 2009.
[4] Sveinn Einarsson: A People´s Theatre Comes of Age, 41-103.

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Theatre and Recession (Iceland)