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An interview with Erling Jóhannesson, the director of "The Blue Planet"

Erling Jóhannesson, the director of “The Blue Planet”, on the significance of elves, recycling villains and children’s theatre in Iceland, in a conversation with his assistants, Zofia Smolarska and Tomasz Kaczorowski:


Zofia Smolarska: I’ll start with your favourite question: “Do you get inspiration from Icelandic nature for creating art?”

Erling Jóhannesson: I don’t think I’m particularly inspired by nature but we’re constantly being asked this question in Iceland, so it is worth considering how nature affects our work. Icelandic nature is beautiful but it has become greatly commercialised. You once asked me why nature is so often featured in video clips by Icelandic bands. It tends to be more obvious in visual arts or music but the theatre, as a predominantly urban art form, concentrates on other things, rarely on nature.

ZS: So Andri Magnason was the first to tackle the issue of ecology in the theatre?

EJ: “The Blue Planet” was written as a protest against the exploitation of nature, during a heated political debate on the subject, initiated by activists who tried to put a stop to the building of a power plant on the east coast, among them many artists, writers or musicians.  But treating nature as a source of artistic inspiration and dealing with the issue of its exploitation are two different matters.

ZS: Well, we rather had the cultural function of nature in mind. When we started working on the play you told us that in Iceland people still believe in spirits which inhabit nature, such as trolls or elves…

EJ: I was thinking more of the heritage, these are the things which have always been with us, like the stories our grandparents told us. Iceland is a relatively large area inhabited by not so many people. There are only 300,000 of us, out of which two-thirds live in Reykjavik and the rest are scattered all over the country, where they have a very immediate contact with nature. Our ex-Prime Minister, Steingrímur Hermansson, when asked whether people in Iceland believed in elves, gave a very apt answer: “My grandmother told me tales about elves and I could never say that my grandmother was lying”. It was the same in ancient communities. These allegorical stories helped in maintaining contact with nature. If you give things or phenomena a human face, then you have to treat them as equals.

ZS: But if you have such wonderful stories which stress the importance of contact with nature, then why do you keep destroying the environment on such a scale?

EJ: It’s the same all over the world – we are greedy and we want more and more.

ZS: Maybe Andri Magnason in his book devoted to ecology consciously returned to the tradition of Icelandic tales in order to re-establish contact with nature?

Tomasz Kaczorowski: Did the author draw on old Icelandic literature, the sagas or the Eddas? I notice a certain similarity in the way in which the stories are told.

EJ: In Iceland if I use the phrase “storytelling”, everyone knows what it’s about. The sagas, which we’ve had since the times of our first ancestors, emerged from the tales which our ancestors used in order to pass their evenings when they had returned from the fields or during wintertime. But I also think that when you create a theatre for children, you simply have to tell a story because that’s what they need.

ZS: You told us of Icelandic fairy tales which contain scary characters, such as mothers who eat their own children. At the end of “The Blue Planet” the children allow Jolly Goodday to join their group. Wasn’t a play in which nobody is to be sacrificed or punished by death surprising for Icelandic children? And doesn’t this end seem too easy or too ideal to you?

EJ: I see nothing wrong in leaving children the hope which is inherent in forgiveness but I can see what you’re getting at and I am still trying to square up to it.

ZS: But maybe this is also the author’s ecological strategy? Instead of getting rid of something which has a negative influence or which we don’t need anymore, we might try to turn it into something good – a kind of literary recycling.

EJ: If we look at it through the prism of ecology, then there are a great deal of negative things in nature which are necessary because they make up the dynamic of the ecosystem. The same in society – having experienced very difficult things, we have to find a way to keep going. Just like here, in Gdansk, in 1970. People died in the square outside the shipyard – should we then kill those responsible for it? Those doing the shooting or maybe those giving the orders to shoot? But then, when would the killing stop? We have to break this chain of revenge but it isn’t easy – there are people out there who have lost those dearest to them. How should we tell children about such things? And this is where storytelling comes in handy – a child can get out of a story as much as is suitable given their age and experience.

ZS: At the beginning of our work we talked a great deal about the ecological context, you showed us films and initiated discussion on climatic change. What was the purpose of all this?

EJ: Despite the fact that the play originated as a reaction to the events in Iceland, they are of a global dimension. Today, the way in which we obtain energy affects the entire world.

ZS: Was it important to you that the actors were aware of those issues?

EJ: Definitely, there is no other way. The actor is probably the most important creator of a play so he or she has to co-create it with their own ideas. This is not to say that they have to agree with me or with what they saw in the film – investing in oneself also involves displaying one’s own opinions, putting up resistance to the director and asking questions.

ZS: On the one hand, you equip actors with knowledge but on the other you expect them to be tabula rasa when they get on the stage. Isn’t this a paradox? 

EJ: Of course, when you get on the stage, you carry with you the whole burden of thoughts, reading, conversations and previous rehearsals but all these are only tools to help you create a “here and now”. It’s all about listening to each other, about being open and generous in one’s reactions to partners. This is a very common rule in Icelandic theatre: you may have your own thoughts, you may be working on your part at home but you cannot get up on the stage with your own action plan and expect all the other actors to comply. The ‘blank slate’ also concerns myself, I have to detach myself from the Icelandic context and find a new home for this story. If I was putting this play on in Iceland, it would probably look completely different.

ZS: Without the shipyard cranes? 

EJ: Yes, probably with no cranes. I am constantly on the lookout for Polish references in the play. 

ZS: Sometimes, when I tell you about Poland, you tell me that something is strange, but in a positive sense, that you find something interesting. I have also noticed that you often use the word ‘strange’ during rehearsals. Sometimes it has a positive ring to it, like when you say “ I prefer strange solutions to the more obvious ones” but sometimes …

TK: …something is too strange.

EJ: I also often use the word sérstakt in Icelandic. It literally means “it stands with no explanation” and can have a very positive undertone to it. Everything in Poland is foreign to me and that’s why it’s interesting. In Iceland we most often think of Poles as hired workers, the largest group of immigrants in Iceland…

TK: …and the largest minority. In Poland we still think of ourselves as inhabitants of a country on the periphery of the West. Do you have a similar feeling in Iceland?

EJ: It’s a geographical fact – we are far out in the ocean.

ZS: But you were telling us that you travel a lot, that young people often study abroad and then they come back. Is this exchange between Western Europe and America very intense?

EJ: My own and younger generations have mostly experienced living abroad, even for a short period of time in Europe or the USA, so we don’t feel we’ve fallen behind. Theatre in Iceland is close to European theatre tradition and its creators have often been educated in Western Europe. 

ZS: You have mentioned your trip behind the Iron Curtain with a group of acting students. Where were you exactly?

EJ: In East Germany and Prague. This was the summer of 1989, shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall. 

ZS: I am asking because one of the key events in “The Blue Planet” is the journey of Brimir and Hulda into the dark side of the planet. I was wondering whether you yourself have ever experienced such a journey. Was the journey behind the Iron Curtain it? 

EJ: So far I have been thinking of Africa as the dark side of the planet because this is where we exploit the resources today in order to feed our consumerism. But it can be seen in different contexts – you may also move from the light to the dark side within one city, or even one district. Historically speaking, Poland and Iceland once both used to be on the dark side of the planet. Today, these divisions are connected with the actions of large corporations, which control politicians in order to get access to the resources. 

ZS: In ‘Dreamland’, a film based on Magnason’s book of the same title, we saw that Icelandic political parties eagerly join corporate actions. Can’t they just oppose them?

EJ: In every country, in Poland too, I presume, there are powers behind political parties, which direct their opinions by means of money. ‘Dreamland’ features an ex-paid lobbyist who later described the same mechanism in his book: he comes to a small village somewhere on the east coast and presents his arguments in favour of a plan which he wishes to force through. It’s all very simple, they teach it at universities. It’s the same conversation which in the last act of the play Jolly Godday has with children. The easiest thing is to intimidate, to make people to be afraid about whether they will have anything to put on their plates tomorrow.

ZS: Is “The Blue Planet” your first attempt at children’s theatre?

EJ: No, I have done two Icelandic plays about children living in the countryside. The makers of these stories were the first generation which had moved to the city. Maybe that’s why the plays which emerged were romantic as a rule, told of exciting times spent in the countryside, of first love.

ZS: Did you perform those plays for schools?

EJ: No, we played for individual audiences. We have no theatres in Iceland which would perform exclusively for children, theatres which whole schools could attend, like you do.  The National Theatre and the City Theatre each put on one children’s play a year. This is very bad because school should give you access to culture, especially if your parents can’t provide it. When I was young, you’d go to theatre twice a year. This is not the case anymore, due to decisions taken by the Minister of Education. You do happen to get some very active parent committees at times, which organise theatre outings at weekends. 

ZS: In Poland money is asked from parents sometimes, for such theatre outings …

EJ: In Iceland schools are not allowed to ask parents for any extra costs. All this results in very low variety in children’s arts.

ZS: Does this in turn result in very low interest in the theatre among adults?

EJ: So far, many people visit the theatre in Iceland and this way of spending their free time is not just reserved for the well-educated or the wealthy. There are 300,000 of us and this corresponds to the number of tickets sold annually. But society is changing and I fear for the consequences of the current situation of children’s theatre. For instance, we have more and more immigrants who rarely take their children to theatre because of the linguistic and cultural barrier. Apart from that, the limited repertoire is the reason why the theatre does not respond to the most current, everyday problems of the children audience. There is no established strategy and continuity as to this art form among artists, and no experiments in this field. Until recently, amateur theatre had been a very popular way of spending free time. Every larger villages had people meeting once a year to put on a play, mainly romantic dramas or Danish plays translated into Icelandic by priests. But this has really gone down in recent years. People prefer other ways of spending their time.