Multimedia theatre and the Nordic connection
At the beginning of The Gerpla Drive, three strangers from different countries meet by accident in the Westfjords. Frustrated with their individual circumstances and feeling trapped by the small island that they live on, they suddenly decide to team up and get out of the country. By car and ferry, they eventually get themselves to the Åland Islands, a remote principality of Finland, but as they often say – it’s the journey, not the destination, that matters.
The production of The Gerpla Drive has just reached its own destination after a long journey to complete an elaborate multimedia play. Director Arn-Henrik Blomqvist, from the Åland Islands himself, envisioned a theatre production where the backdrops were entirely filmed, using real proportions and cinematic interaction between live performers and filmed ones. After over a year of improvising, filming, writing and experimenting, the play premiered last night in Mariehamm, Åland. On Friday it will premiere here in Iceland, the home country of one of the play’s three characters, as well as the actor who plays her, Þórey Sigþórsdóttir. We caught up with Þórey to find out more.
How long has the production been going on?
Last year we came here to improvise and rehearse around the director’s basic structure. We were finding the characters at that point to figure out their looks and everything because that summer we had to go shoot the footage at various locations. The characters go to the Faroe Islands, then Norway, Sweden, Finland and Åland. The backdrops of the set are films that were shot there, so the play happens in the actual places where the characters visit. In some cases we are interacting with the films themselves. It’s naturalistic but it’s an interesting mix. I haven’t seen it done exactly like this before.
We only got the script in late February, but was nice to read through it because to me it feels like I know this character. I think that the director managed to pick up on what we did in the improvisation sessions quite well and build that into a final product. You never know when you are improvising – how will the writer manage to capture it and put it down.
How were these backdrops filmed to work in the context of a play?
The director had to calculate the precise angle of the camera so it would fit onstage, because when you come onstage and you talk to a person that is in the film you have to make sure that the size is right. Sometimes one is seen on the film and then they enter the stage. We thought it was a great idea but didn’t know if it would work. We have tried it out with a test projector and we’re just praying it’s all going to work out with our final touring projector.
There is also the great music and soundscape made by Leif Jordansson, from Sweden, which adds an atmospheric layer to the play. When the sounds and the music come in it becomes quite filmic. It’s a delicate thing because if something is not right on stage then the audience will look for something in the film. There was a lot of attention to the staging of it.
Where did the idea for this method come from?
The director Arn-Henrik has done some work like this before and this was his initial idea. I actually have an independent theatre group in Iceland and the last performance we did back in 2000 called ‘Medea’ combined film, theatre and music, so it’s kind of interesting that I’m in this one. Still, it’s a very different project.
How involved were you in creating and developing your character?
The director sent out key words like characters from films or real life people that we were supposed to study before we came to rehearsals last year. So I kind of plucked my ideas from that. At that point I hadn’t met the other actors so when we started to rehearse, of course, we only had the structure of a story. Arn-Henrik started off with the inspiration of ‘Gerpla’ by Halldór Laxness, because he is a longtime fan of Iceland. After a while he diverged from it and expanded the plot, so it’s interesting to ask what’s left of the original idea. For me, the traces of it are in the characters. This is kind of a black comedy, or a tragic comedy one might say, and ‘Gerpla’ was also kind of a transgressive, ironic, humourous take on the Sagas.
Arn-Henrik realised as he worked on the play that he was getting further and further away from this Viking world and it just called for different solutions that were more interesting than in Laxness’ tale. There are still similarities with the characters – the hero, the poet, the femme-fatale – and they all go on a journey as they did in ‘Gerpla’, like an odyssee around Scandinavia. You kind of end up seeing some events that have happened in the Nordic countries reflected in them, like the financial collapse in Iceland.
Film and theatre about travel usually centres around the discovery of the self. Can you tell me some of the individual struggles that the characters experience as they go through this journey?
I can’t really tell you without spoiling it! [Laughs] But that is exactly what it’s about. As it plays out one sees the layers of the onion peel off. When the journey begins, we meet this half-Italian half-Icelandic woman who is dressed up like some kind of film star, and she has that aura around her. Then there is a Finnish man who has married a local woman but he has had enough and he wants to get out of this country. Then there’s a Norwegian business man who has been working for a fish company in Iceland and he’s also trying to get away from it. So they’re all leaving Iceland, for different reasons.
All the members of the cast and crew are from different Nordic regions. Did this diaspora have an effect on the play and the production itself?
The Nordic connection affected our way of working mostly in that we worked in English together. We don’t all have the same ways of expressing ourselves in that language so sometimes we had to search farther to find the best way to say things to each other. But we were a small and intimate group so it was okay. It was also interesting for us to look at the role of language in this because if these were three real people that met in Iceland today, they would communicate in English. That’s the reality of things. Of course, they still have the need to speak their own language.
Are you excited about coming and showing it here at home?
Yeah! It’s great that we’re able to come and do that. When you do a performance and you put all your work into it, you want people to see it! [Laughs.] One of the things that will be really exciting to see is that the reactions and the laughs will probably be in different places depending on what country we are showing it in. I remember once I did a play about Icelandic fishing villages that went on tour around the country. It got totally different reactions in those towns than in Reykjavík, because the reality of the play was much more serious for them. In Reykjavík it was a comedy but in the country it was more dramatic. So it will be interesting to see how that aspect of the play turns out.
The Gerpla Drive runs April 19-21, 20:00 at Tjarnabío. The show lasts 90 minutes with no intermission. Tickets cost 3,500 ISK and are available at midi.is. For more information about the play, visit thegerpladrive.ax.
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