From Iceland — Beyond Language: Theatre Production ‘Umbra’ Speaks to Audiences Without Words

Beyond Language: Theatre Production ‘Umbra’ Speaks to Audiences Without Words

Published October 23, 2022

Beyond Language: Theatre Production ‘Umbra’ Speaks to Audiences Without Words
Josie Gaitens
Photo by
Eva Ágústa

Finding English-language theatre performances in Iceland has always presented a challenge, but a new production at Tjarnarbíó seeks to bypass the issue of language altogether—by not including any. ‘Umbra’ (‘Hríma’ in Icelandic) is described by its creators as a “visually pleasing tragi-comedy,” and in addition to its lack of script, it is notable for the fact that the characters onstage are portrayed by detailed, hand-made masks.

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“This is a great medium to tackle something so fragile,” says ‘Umbra’s creator, Aldís Davíðsdóttir. “Because there are no words you don’t have to be very intellectual about it. You can just sit there with an open heart.”

Another side to MeToo

The fragility Aldís references is in relation to the show’s themes and subject matter, which explore difficult topics including sexual violence, isolation and aging. But Aldís wants to reassure audiences that the outcome is not all doom and gloom.

“It’s also very humorous, the main character is a funny little lady,” Aldís says. However, she is clear about the significance of the story, and the reasons behind her desire to bring it to the stage. “When the MeToo movement went global, we mostly got stories from women under 50,” Aldís explains. “We know the violence did not start with us. So what about the older ones? What about the women who fought for our rights the first time round?”

Music to lead the way

Without a script to lean on, other elements of the performance take on greater importance, from costume, to lighting, to the soundscape that accompanies the play. But musical director Sævar Helgi Jóhannsson feels that not focussing too heavily on the responsibility of his role was crucial during his creative process.

“I tried not to worry too much about it,” he laughs. “But the music is definitely such an important part of the project. It leads you through and tells you what to feel.”

“It creates a platform… You can start your story after this story.”

However, Sævar believes the success of ‘Umbra’ is down to the symbiotic relationship between all of the different parts of the play. “I think it’s really an amalgamation of all things,” he says, continuing, “All of the elements of this project came together so beautifully. So the music was also inspired by the actors, the stage design and everything else.”

Despite this, ‘Umbra’s unique constraints did throw up some challenges for Sævar and his colleagues:

“The tough thing about this project is that because there are no words, and everything was so abstract, it was hard to make everything clear,” he says. “I think it worked out—I hope! But I also think it’s nice that this way of doing things leaves room for interpretation, because then people can relate to the story on their terms.”

Returning the shame

Aldís also recognises the importance of opening up stories for an audience, and feels that theatre is the perfect way to share that experience.

“It’s a very old way of being together,” she says. “What I think is most important about it is when people walk out of the theatre, they have the opportunity to say, ‘Oh wow, that was a difficult story. You know actually, when I was a child…’”

“It creates a platform,” she continues. “You can go somewhere. You can start your story after this story.”

This goal is the driving force behind ‘Umbra’s storyline, and while Aldís recognises that some elements of the play might be challenging for viewers, she hopes to deliver a sense of catharsis by exhuming her characters’ experiences.

“I want people to walk away with a feeling of release,” she explains. “We have a saying in Icelandic, ‘to return the shame.’ We hand back the shame of an experience to the person who gave it to us.”

“It’s always about the story”

‘Umbra’ premiered in Tjarnarbíó on October 16th, and so far Aldís says the response from attendees has been overwhelmingly positive.

“From what I’ve heard, people feel like it is a gentle, funny and moving way to deliver this topic,” she says. “Which I’m so happy about, because the concept can sound very harsh. I’m glad that people don’t find it too much.”

While ‘Umbra’ will only be running for four shows this autumn, luckily for audiences Aldís has lots of future plans and is full of ideas for stories to come:

“We now have three whole mask shows,” Aldís says, referring to ‘Is This The End?’ and ‘Hero,’ her previous productions before ‘Umbra’. “Our next project is to take them abroad to new audiences, because the environment we have for theatre in Iceland can be very disposable.”

“I’m very interested in making stories now,” Aldís continues. “I don’t know whether they’re going to go on the stage or the screen, but the main thing is that the story has to have a good purpose that you can lean into and deliver. It’s never about me, it’s always about the story.”

Umbra runs until November 6th at Tjarnarbíó. Find out more and purchase tickets here.

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