Published October 20, 2017
In the wake of the October 2008 financial crash, the Special Investigation Commission (SIC) was tasked with trying to assess why exactly it had happened. The report they would end up releasing in April 2010 was a massive, multi-volume analysis that assigned a spectrum of blame across the board, from financiers to elected officials. Ultimately, while a number of bankers were found culpable and sentenced to prison, no Icelandic politician has been found to have any legal responsibility in the crash. This does not mean they didn’t have any moral culpability though, and as new revelations on current Prime Minister Bjarni Benediktsson’s financial dealings just before the crash are becoming a lightning rod for criticism this campaign season, the crash is perhaps more relevant now than it has been in years.
Þorleifur Örn Arnarsson and Mikael Torfason set about the ambitious task of making a play out of the SIC report, entitled ‘Guð Blessi Ísland.’ The title means “God Bless Iceland,” and is a reference to a now-infamous televised address made by then-Prime Minister Geir H. Haarde to the nation just after the banks collapsed in 2008. The play is an attempt to address what got us to that point, but also raises interesting questions regarding our collective responsibility, and the cultural and social aspects that contributed to the crisis.
“This play isn’t about what happened after the crash; it’s about what happened before,” Þorleifur tells us. “You go on stage with your problem, which is: where do you start? In a system of corruption going back decades and generations, where do you begin? So I am trying to extract a multifaceted version of events, a panopticon of what led to the economic crash.”
The importance of chaos
“I thrive on chaos,” Þorleifur says. “I won’t go and create deliberate chaos. I just don’t mind it. I don’t mind uncertainty. In fact, I want it. I want to explore possibilities. I think that answering a question too early is more deadly than just not answering it. An open question will keep the drive alive so you create a need to generate answers.”
Þorleifur acknowledges that there is always going to be a different interpretation of events leading to the crash depending on who you talk to. “No matter who you asked in this country about what started the crash you would get a different answer every time,” he admits. “It would depend on how interested they are, which political affiliations they have. There are multiple truths going on. I could just as well ask where Brexit began or where Trump began. It depends how deep you want to dig. You could say it started with the privatisation of the banks in 2003; or you could say it started in 1991, when the fishing quota system was marketised. So I thought the most honest place to start was just not knowing where to start.”
Indeed, even the conclusions of the SIC report have been controversial, across the political spectrum. Conservatives and progressives alike have had reservations with the findings, and for Þorleifur it was paramount to make sure these different interpretations had a home in the play.
“I create an interpretation, and I try to give as much artistic leeway to the actors as possible, and we pretty much throw everything in there,” he says. “And the recipient of the interpretation is also an interpretation in itself, because you’re talking about things that people know. There won’t be a single person in the audience who doesn’t have strong opinions on every single scene and every single character who’s going to appear on stage.”
Þorleifur believes that there is a social need for this kind of open-ended examination, not least because of social media. The echo chambers we create on Facebook and Twitter have led to a muddying of the waters, whereby, according to Þorleifur, “we increasingly cannot differentiate between having our opinions and having an informed debate. So our opinions have become our informed debate, which means if somebody disagrees with you, it’s personal.”
Little fish, big pond
Post-modernist notions of the flexibility of the truth aside, there surely are contributing factors to the financial crash, and Þorleifur believes a lot of them are culturally specific to Iceland. “You’d have to explore a couple avenues,” Þorleifur postulates. “One would be that you’d have to acknowledge the size of this country. We have always been a young and tiny nation. Before World War II, this was probably the worst place in Europe to live. Now, going from the poorest country in Europe to one of its richest in a very short period of time (if Iceland were a person, you might phrase it ‘getting that rich that fast’) detaches you from yourself. In nation years, we’re like teenagers at best. Also, it’s more fun to make it to the World Cup than to make it to the Small League Of Nations Cup. It’s more fun to be one of the big boys than to be the best of the small boys. What the business tycoons did is they gave us that feeling that we’re playing in the big leagues. We shouldn’t underestimate that effect. And then, with an increasing sense of financial well-being, what is going to happen is you enhance this detachment from your basic values. You’re going to disregard a lot of the warning signals that might present themselves.”
So our financiers, with cheerleading from our elected officials, ended up contributing to our downfall. Did the protests then, in large part, stem from our anger at these powerful men for ruining our international image as a big-time player? “Of course,” Þorleifur says. “And there’s a lot of parallels to alcoholism. There is a tendency to repress your inferiority complex with megalomania. And I very often have the feeling that that’s how Iceland is. Then again, you can also say, ‘Is it better to resign ourselves to being small?’ There’s a fine line there.”
It’s exactly this fine line, this delicate balance, that Þorleifur sought to maintain in the writing of this play, because he acknowledges that even collective responsibility runs along a spectrum.
“I of course acknowledge that people will always be able to say that they weren’t involved,” he says. “But I think economically speaking, and on the grander psyche scale of the nation, you will have to agree with the assumption that, as a nation, we partook in the economic boom. So in the play, to have people refer to their own stories, and open up to the possibility of moral impurity. It gives us the possibility of criticising others better, to start by saying, ‘Hey, I’ve also made mistakes.’ It sets a different tone. It allows you to take a deeper look at the reality behind this. It’s a narrow path to walk.”
When it comes to the play itself, one of the first things that grabs the viewer is the set. The walls are a stark chalk white, and the stage is covered with hundreds of identical white plastic chairs, bringing to mind Eugene Ionesco’s ‘The Chairs,’ another play about great expectations that led to oblivion.
“The chairs originally started as an idea of having an AA meeting for people who can’t control their finances,” Þorleifur says, laughing. “At some point we thought we should invite all the audience to the stage, and that’s where the idea was born to order 500 chairs. Then that idea kind of dissipated, and I realised I had to fill the stage with chairs. There are so few actors that it creates this incredible loneliness in the room. I want us to have this moment of reflection before we set off the fireworks.”
The characters the actors play will be very familiar to Icelandic audiences; they’re our financiers and politicians, some of them disgraced now, others still going strong. In what is no doubt going to be one of the most memorable moments of the play, conservative historian Hannes Hólmsteinn Gissurarson drives a hearse onto the stage. Standing on top of it is legendary Icelandic politician (and current Morgunblaðið editor) Davíð Oddsson. Once they reach centre stage, Hannes acts like a fawning toady to his hero Davíð, holding his microphone stand for him and defending his honour. This interpretation is not very far from the truth.
“We live in a complex world,” Þorleifur says. “People like Hannes and Davíð reject this and say, ‘No it’s not complex. It’s relatively simple. We have a system, and it works.’ History is also viewed as very simple: Davíð Oddsson saved Iceland. If you read Hannes Hólmsteinn’s articles on Davíð Oddsson in Morgunblaðið, replace every instance of ‘Davíð’ with ‘Kim Jong-un’ and you probably wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.”
Know your enemy
In fairness, it must be mentioned that in 2007 Þorleifur did work closely with the Independence Party. He describes that experience as personally very enriching.
“I was brought in by the Secretary General of the party, who was a very close friend of mine,” Þorleifur explains. “I know he felt they needed a voice from the outside. They needed somebody who could look at things from another perspective. I’ve never thought of politics in terms of parties. I think of politics in terms of necessity and policy, but in a broader sense. I can see times when raising taxes is a good idea, and I can see times and contexts when lowering taxes is a good idea. I hope I never find myself so squarely on one side of a debate that I wouldn’t be willing to take a second look. I mean, there are some red lines I have.”
He now describes the Independence Party as one that “secretly condones racism and seems to be stuck in the past,” but doesn’t regret working with them.
“At the time, I felt like I could be of more use trying to pull the Independence Party into a direction of libertarianism,” he says. “To make a long story short, I don’t have a political alliance to any one party, but I enjoy the political landscape immensely. It helped me immensely. I was working with a lot of people that I fundamentally disagreed with but I liked on a personal level. It’s so easy to sit on the outside and judge people. It was a profound experience to work with people that I fundamentally disagreed with.”
Þorleifur realises that his take on Davið and Hannes may end up upsetting half the audience. However, his hope is that the work will speak to everyone. “I realise that this is being performed in the national theatre, and so tax money is funding this,” he says. “And so I ask myself, what is required of me for this investment? I cannot in good conscience say ‘to get across my opinions about everything,’ because what we’re not lacking in Iceland is more opinions. What we are actually lacking is some sort of overview and review, and maybe at the core to make peace with the fact that there isn’t an answer.”
Have we learned anything though? Þorleifur believes we might have. “The difference between the boom now and the boom then is that the boom then was fueled by delusion,” he says. “The current boom is much more fueled by real economic data. We have doubt now. Now there is a large section that doubts. There is a demand for a different way of communicating and running things. We’re living, globally, in times of extreme change. It has dark sides, but it also has incredible possibilities.”
For better or for worse, we may just have to accept that sometimes, there just isn’t one definitive answer. “I find it extremely important to not create a narrow narrative,” Þórleifur insists. “But rather, to have this perspective of a kind of post-modern state of mind, with the constant doubt, and the idea that any given information will only reveal new levels of information, where every interpretation doesn’t lead to a point, but only leads to another interpretation. This is an intolerable state of being, but if we’re going to be true to our innermost selves in the capitalist world we live in, that is a state we might have to accept as a basis.”