Published February 11, 2005

A nightmare scenario? Well, yes, and also the subject of a new play, American Diplomacy, written and directed by aspiring young playwright Þorleifur Arnarsson. Give or take the terrorist act, the situation is actually more plausible than you might think. When Grapevine tried to find out last summer who was responsible for governing the country when the Foreign Minister was away and the Prime Minister was in hospital, it turned out it was none other than agricultural minister Guðni Ágústson, number three in line as head of government.
Torturing Prime Ministers
“It’s a political tragicomedy,” says Þorleifur. “We are lucky enough to have in the leading role the actor Hjálmar Hjálmarsson, who used to do spoof news on radio for seven years, so he has the necessary experience. Every morning we go over the latest news and see what we can work into the play.”
This may very well be the most political play to make its way onto an Icelandic stage in quite some time, but Þorleifur has directed political stuff before. His dramatisation of Orwell’s 1984, where he locked up the actors in a cell for the night to get them in the right mood, left no one who saw in unmoved. And he also directed the play Pentagon, a collection of 5 mini plays, four of which were by aspiring young writers such as Eiríkur Norðdal and Haukur Már Helgason, and the fifth was by Australian Vanessa Badham.
“Most of the segments were very political. Haukur Már’s piece was about a couple of philosophers who kidnap a Prime Minister and torture him while discussing Socrates’ theories on violence.”
Missing Australians
Vanessa Badham also figures in the current play, although more by her absence.
“I flew to Australia to meet her. She was going to write a play that I was to direct called American Diplomacy. Then one mishap followed another and she was unable to do it. I was left with a grant from the Ministry of Culture and a play, so there was nothing for it but to write the damn thing myself.”
The art of directing theatre is not, contrary to popular belief, an inherited craft but an acquired one. But even if it were, Þorleifur would have the right pedigree. His father is renowned actor Arnar Jónsson, who most recently played legendary bishop Jón Arason in the National Theatre’s Öxin og jörðin, and his mother is Þórhildur Þorleifsdóttir, who recently directed the City Theater’s Hýbýli vindanna. But he grew up around politics as well as the arts.
“My father was arrested once in 1962 for writing socialist slogans on a NATO ship. He was locked up during the day, but the jailer let him go during the evening as he had to attend a theatre rehearsal that night.”
Bloggers in jail
But Þorleifur is set to make it in the theatre in his own right. And his opinions are all his own too.
“What we are witnessing now is the decline of democracy, as the major corporations assume more control of the individual. As we speak, the first blogger is being sued by Apple corp in the United States, even though the constitution there is supposed to be protecting his right to free speech. It’s this decline of democracy that I’m afraid we’re seeing the beginning of here.”
And yet Þorleifur still sees cause for optimism: “Despite everything, we did see some progress in the 20th Century. Oppression of women or minority groups is no longer tolerated to the extent that it was 50 years ago. So some things can actually change for the better.”
American Diplomacy is premiered at Borgarleikhúsið on February 24th.

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