Since it was founded in 2001, Reykjavík-based independent theatre company Vesturport has been known for being innovative, unrestrained and provocative, never afraid to take on new challenges and impress the audience with breathtaking stunts and dramatic performances. After starting out in a small workshop at Vesturgata in downtown Reykjavík, the group has moved on to bigger territories and today celebrates an incredible success internationally.
As always, Vesturport is working on new ways to satisfy the demanding theatre audience. The company is creating a new production of the popular rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar, featuring some of Iceland’s leading actors and rockstars, a new film is in pre-production and plenty of ideas for new plays are in development. When Grapevine sat down with actor and director Björn Hlynur Haraldsson to discuss Vesturport’s future projects, the group had just come back from Amsterdam, where they performed four shows of Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck at the Het Muziektheater.
Vesturport’s production of Woyzeck first premiered in the London Barbican Theatre in 2005, with original music and lyrics by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. To say the least, the show was a major hit among the audience as well as the critics, and after bringing the play to Icelandic audiences they returned to London for a rerun.
This young touring ensemble numbers 12 members who, in collaboration, are constantly trying to create something unique and different and finding new ways to do things, taking on the role of actors, directors, writers, producers or all of these at once. They’ve taken their project to festivals all around Europe and been invited to stage their plays at some of the most established European theatres.
Asked what he thinks is the key factor behind Vesturport’s success, Björn Hlynur replies that there is no real trick but that by being determinate, energetic and believing in the projects they’ve been producing they’ve managed to get where they are today.
“We are a group consisting of people who all think of themselves as the one who knows best. We are a bunch of divas. Everyone has to have a say. It can make you crazy, but then you realize, that’s just the way you want things to be. I think that this mix is a big part of what drives us.”
A Group With a Vision
Vesturport is a group with a vision. Their Myspace reads that the aim is to find every project’s own voice, style, time and space without forcing a play into a space where its story and characters will not be fully understood. For that sincere approach, they’ve triumphed, gained an incredible following and are today renowned for their original and often unusual productions of classic masterpieces such as Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, and Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. They’ve also managed to produce two successful independent twin-films, Children and Parents by Ragnar Bragason, which have been screened at film festivals abroad, as well as receiving an international award for the play Surf by Jón Atli Jónasson. By being both inventive and energetic, in only a couple of years Vesturport has managed to appeal to the broad public on both sides of the North Atlantic and, with numerous unconventional adaptations, has transformed the Icelandic theatre landscape.
“We’re just trying to create something we would like to go see ourselves. The old cliché, really. Ever since the beginning we were clever enough not to pin down any rules for the company. Our manifesto was to have no manifesto. I think that you have to be allowed to get tired of a certain format. If, for example, I were to produce a show with bungees, acrobatics, lots of smoke and explosions, then I have to be allowed to get bored of that format next year. The more variety the artist has to show, the more interesting it is. For example, I have often been irritated by how predictable theatre can be.”
Hard Rock Hallelujah!
Asked why they decided the next project to be a famous musical, he explains:
“A year ago, we were talking about doing something else, something we had never tried before. We had for example an idea of a children’s play and I had also always wanted to produce a musical. Jesus Christ Superstar is in my opinion by far the best musical ever written. The music is great from beginning to end and few people can deny that the story is interesting.
“I gathered people that had the same attitude towards musicals as I do. Börkur Jónsson (Vesturport’s stage designer), for example, thought I had lost my mind when I told him about this idea and I was sure that all the singers and musicians I wanted to include in the project would punch me in the face for even considering them,” he adds.
The line-up is bound to attract a mixed crowd. Starring Krummi, the singer of hard rock-band Mínus, as Jesus himself and Jenni from Brain Police taking on the role of Judas, it also has Bjarni Hall singer of band Jeff Who? as well as actors Ingvar E. Sigurðsson, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, Ólafur Egill Ólafsson and Lára Sveinsdóttir are in the leading roles. To guarantee a quality, hard-hitting rock show, two other members of Mínus, guitarist Bjarni and drummer Bjössi, were hired to arrange their version of the music.
Jesus Christ Superstar is scheduled to premiere in the middle of July. When asked where the musical will be staged, Björn Hlynur becomes quite mysterious:
“All I can say is that it will be a very unusual setting, and will in all likelihood not be located inside a conventional theatre,” he says.
As mentioned before, Vesturport’s members have plenty of ideas on how to spend the forthcoming months. In addition to the rock show, Björn Hlynur is writing a new play for The Akureyri Theatre, which he will direct next fall, a movie based on the play Surf by Jón Atli is in the making and further theatre projects are being laid out. This active and uninhibited mix of actors, directors and playwrights has already proven that a small independent company can do whatever-the-hell they feel like it, if the attitude is right. By now, this growing theatre company stops at nothing, having triumphed in Britain, being hyped-up in Iceland and is set to conquer the rest of the world.