From Iceland — Lyrical Savages

Lyrical Savages

Published February 8, 2008

Lyrical Savages
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Actress Brynhildur Guðjónsdóttir is a long-time veteran of the Reykjavík stage. Having frequently crossed thespian-media to star in premier films as well as television and theatre productions, Brynhildur has become well known for her bold personification of characters such as Edith Piaf, from the musical of the same name, for which she won Actress of the Year at Gríman (the Icelandic national theatre awards) in 2004. From the epic Egils saga, Brynhildur has now begotten her first onewoman show, Brák, relating the emotional tale of Þorgerður Brák, the bondservant who became one of Iceland’s matriarchs and who reared Egill Skallagrímsson, the country’s first and greatest poet.
You’re now the second person, in recent years at least, to tackle Egils saga with a solo act. What is it about this story that so appeals to this form?

That wasn’t really the idea. The Settlement Centre has two permanent exhibits, and it was decided to run a vocational theatre there as well. The Centre orders these shows and asks for something specific. Essentially Þorgerður Brák came up because we wanted to keep our roots in the Viking Age. So the story could just as well have been out of Laxdæla saga or Njáls saga, but of course we’re not in Laxárdalur Valley. It’s not necessarily that Egils saga is a better form than any other story. In fact, I also delve into Laxdæla saga, other ancient Scandinavian histories, Irish ancient history, The Book of Settlement and other sources extremely far and wide. But it was decided from the start that this would be a solo performance. The space just can’t accommodate anything else.

It certainly plays upon the story-telling tradition.
Yes, exactly. And this is of course a form that demands an enormous amount of work. It’s been about a nine-month-long process, day and night, because this has been constantly running along in my head.
There is very little in Egils saga directly about Brák and you delve somewhat into the broader history of female enslavement by the Vikings.
Yes. There is of course very little about Brák and about most other bondwomen. There are a few who get a sort of vindication because they are Iceland’s matriarchs and they raise good men who marry good daughters. But sources about slaves are very scarce and are also coloured by those writing them. These Icelandic sagas recount the same events as some Irish scribes, but it’s completely black and white. For us, these are heroic tales, and the women were fairly happy to come over and so on. In Ireland these were considered the most disgusting people imaginable. The Vikings that came and kidnapped young women and children were revolting animals. So I have to look at everything and then, because I’m writing a play, there has to be a bad guy, you know, and in my case I side with the Irish. Not that this is polemic, it’s not a polemic play. It’s just blowing life into our story and showing that it is incredibly enjoyable and that it draws a lot from Irish sagas, for example, and there are many stories that mirror each other very precisely.
To what extent then is this actually a story of Brák? It seems much more comprehensive, as a story about women in the saga age more generally.

Well the play is called “Brák” and tells the story of Þorgerður Brák, but in light of the fact that sources are so scarce, both about her and other slaves, I chose to weave the story around who this woman was. She was the person who nursed Egill, Iceland’s greatest poet and the man who is called the father of Icelandic poetry. With him, certain poetic forms emerge in Iceland that didn’t exist in Norway but that were rooted in Ireland. What did he know? Well he knew poetry, he knew magic and he was a hero. What kind of person raises that sort of man? So I had to jump back and forth in the story to find out what he was made of in terms of what kind of upbringing he received. But it’s clearly a story of emotion, it’s the emotional story of a person, and it’s the story of an era, essentially, much more so than the daily life of some bondwoman. It isn’t exactly: she woke up, ate breakfast and went to work.
Essentially I started out knowing that there are eleven lines written about her in Egils saga, and not much else.
How did you decide where to start then, when you took on this whole project?
Basically, I started by reading Egils saga and mapping it out a little bit, and then I went into the Settlement period and mapped out the movements of the people that came to these places at this time, what other bondwomen’s stories are interesting to look at and which stories mirror each other. Gradually it became bigger and bigger and at one point it was just like this overawing helmet. There was a core or a kind of sun which was Brák, and from her came all these rays, and then I just had to choose and refuse… in which direction do I want to go? What stories can be accommodated within this? When my director, Atli Rafn [Sigurðarson], came to the project I was just like this single mother with seven children, and some of the kids had to just… go off somewhere else, because, well, I had enough material for a seven or eight-hour show. So I had to start by whittling things down.
And just chasing down interesting titbits that seemed to surface…

Exactly, and what remained is what ended up in the show. Your head just becomes a certain kind of filter: some things stay and the rest just goes.
Does that relate to this being what you call an emotional show? Is that what you were filtering for? Emotional relevance?
Yes undoubtedly. For me, you know, this was just an incredibly emotionally rich story of, you know, people. Of course they were Vikings who killed and pillaged and burned and raped and were completely mad, but they were still people. Especially with someone like Egill, in all his lyricism, it is so easy to read his emotional life through his verse. The need to say these things must come from somewhere, and so many answers lie in the poetry.
When you start leafing through the books, the stuff is, well, it’s fairly dry. But you just need to pick at it and get underneath the surface, and then it’s so incredibly juicy. Essentially, you know, without having looked for it especially, that’s just the stuff that stands out.
You see, this is all just old and new and true and false. It might not be completely true that some guy jumped his height dressed in full armour. That’s maybe not totally true, but these are all fine stories, you know. Furthermore, these stories are supposed to have happened in 800, 900, and 1,000 AD, but they’re not written until 1,100- and-something. And now we’re sitting here talking, I mean, if someone sits down in the year 2,400 to write about what we were saying, then it’s probably going to be a little bit different. So you know, you try to see things mirrored, but this is naturally all my interpretation of what I’m reading. This all happened and is happening sort of automatically. The show is a kind of puzzle. The pictures come gradually and it’s not until the end that we see the full picture, what we intended to see. We don’t necessarily get the whole frame first. That’s what’s so exciting, I think.

Brák is now showing at the Settlement Centre in Borgarnes. For more information about available shows visit Tickets are available at 437 1600.

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