The IKEA KALLAX shelving unit stands at 77 centimetres high. With four square shelves and a variety of muted colours, it’s one of those IKEA pieces you’ll find at probably every single house in Scandinavia. That said—it usually holds books and knick-knacks. You probably haven’t seen it used for acrobatic stunts and ballet choreography, but that’s exactly what audiences found at “Three Men From The North”—one of the biggest hits of this year’s Reykjavík Fringe Festival.
The show was made by the Nordic Council—a circus troupe composed of juggler Merri Heikkilä from Finland, Swedish aerialist Jakob Jacobsson, and resident Icelandic circus guru Bjarni Árnason. The group won the coveted Grapevine Prize at the 2021 Reykjavík Fringe awards, but the show is so fantastic we’d happily write about them, award or no award.
“It’s a tableau of things that we as Northerners have in common,” Jakob says, distilling the circus performance down into a few words. “Adding to that, coming from the North means handling emotions and dealing with things in a certain way—there’s a precision and methodology there that we bring to the show.”
‘Three Men From The North’ journeys through many Nordic stereotypes, from the funny—a juggling act with accordion choreography—to the serious, such as a monologue about the plight of a repressed Finnish man accompanied by death-defying aerial stunts. No matter where you’re from, it’s a romp through the Nordics that invites you to giggle at those clichés—IKEA furniture, woolen sweaters, more IKEA furniture—that truly define the Nordic psyche.
But the humour of the show comes not only from their celebration (and sometimes mockery) of their own cultures, but the very actions of the men themselves. As a trio, they’ve integrated “mistakes” into their circus performances, adding a layer of humility and relatability that’s both unexpected and hysterical. While the audience is certainly duped the first time one drops a club or stumbles through a trick, once they get the wink-wink humour that each fumble is intentional, they begin to cheer at both the triumphs of their physical prowess, but also the moments when they fail.
“Accidents happen,” Bjarni laughs. “We want to work with failures. The idea that just because something didn’t go the way I planned doesn’t mean it’s a mistake. When you start performing, mistakes can become an even bigger fantasy. It can become the best story. We all know what it’s like to be screamed at because you spilled on your mother’s Christmas dinner tablecloth. It’s very human.”
One of the most affecting aspects of the show though is the trio’s nuanced exploration of masculinity. Nordic men have often been associated with being both stoic to the point of irrationality, but also rather whimsical. In “Three Men From The North”, Merri, Jakob and Bjarni take this dichotomy in stride.
“[Masculinity] is a theme that, very often, when you start dealing with gender roles and norms, a lot of people will back up and get a little defensive because they don’t want to hear about those topics,” Jakob explains. “We don’t try to evaluate or cast judgement but rather show different ways of approaching them. Hopefully, it gives people a bit of space to reflect, not in an aggressive way, but in a way where people can arrive at their own conclusions.”
“Vulnerability is something that we work a lot with, but not in a sense that is traditionally showcased,” he continues. “All the things we do on stage are incredibly fragile in terms of a stage relationship, so we have to have a lot of things in sync between the three of us that puts us in a place where none of us can do these traditional macho things.” He pauses. “And I think that kind of masculinity is not shown often enough.”
With COVID continuing its dark reign, it’s unclear when the Nordic Council will take the stage again. But three men in particular promise to return to Iceland as soon as possible for an encore run of ‘Three Men From The North’. In the interim—there’s always another KALLAX shelf to build.
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