Features Published 16 July 2019

Encounters With Reykjavik Fringe

Alice Saville discovers a fringe arts explosion at Iceland's new festival of grassroots performance.
Alice Saville

‘The Swan Woman’ at Reykjavik Fringe. Photo: Bylgja@ Gallery Undirheimar/RVK Fringe

To discover a new city, get lost on purpose, the travel mags say, and tbh whenever I’ve tried that I’ve ended up dodging suspiciously friendly stray dogs on an out-of-town industrial estate or somehow managing to circle the same four tourist-ridden streets until they’re just a single horrifying blur of postcard shops. Going to a fringe festival, on the other hand, might be my new favourite way of discovering a new city. You’re thrown straight into the indie venues that are nice enough to let a bunch of artists do art things in their backrooms and basements, and into contact with art that gives you leftfield, refracted perspectives on the place you’re exploring – or at least I was at Reykjavik Fringe, the second instalment of Iceland’s grassroots performance festival.

I’m used to the Edinburgh fringe’s mega huge, long-established annual fest, so it’s fascinating to see what an open-access fringe festival looks like at the very beginning. Edinburgh fringe warps the economy of the city around it; pushes up year-round property prices, makes artists bend their whole years around one month of promise. Reykjavik fringe is at the stage where it’s trying its best to make a lasting dent in the city’s consciousness, to make its mark on a theatre calendar where most of the big shows happen in permanent venues, in Iceland’s long dark winters. Reykjavik’s year round population is only 200,000 – significantly smaller than my home borough of Lewisham (292,000). I can’t imagine working/writing in a theatre scene made up solely of Brockley Jack Theatre, Greenwich Theatre, and Catford Broadway; but then, London’s huge size does this weird thing where it encourages you to deinvest in your immediate community, because bigger brighter things can be yours just a tube ride away.

At Reykjavik fringe, I see pretty much everything (breaking only for outdoor swimming or for boat trips where I try and spot whales instead – two harbour porpoises and a minkie, thanks for asking). And so does the festival director, Nanna Gunnars, who kindly invited Exeunt to the fringe, and is everywhere during the course of its week-long run; sitting in the audience, carrying heavy-looking things, making stressful-looking phonecalls, and even wobbling along on stilts as part of the festival’s opening parade.

The fest’s small size makes it feel hospitable and kind, somehow: it all kicks off with both a big party and a preview night where every single act takes to the stage to spruke their show. Artists party together, and invest in the shared cause of getting people excited about this eclectic week of theatre, dance, comedy, art, and music. Barriers to putting something on are pretty low, as artists don’t pay for venue hire: just a £20 entry fee, and that’s it, bar the (non-negligible) cost of getting to and living in the city if they’re coming internationally. Applications are via the Nordic Fringe Network, which has one centralised process for eight festivals – many of the artists who come here will also be playing the longer-established but still pretty young fringe fests in Stockholm, Gothenburg and Bergen. That means that a lot of the performances come from Germany and Scandinavia, but there are also entries from the UK, Australia, Spain and the US.

All the performances are in English, catering to my monoglot ways and highlighting the general obnoxious idleness of the native English speaker: while some performed their whole show in their second or third language, acts from the UK couldn’t even say the Icelandic names of their venues.

Fortunately, the female duo behind Ice Ice Iceland were ready with pronunciation lessons and a general all-round crash course in Icelandic culture. In new-but-thriving basement comedy venue The Secret Cellar, they scattered the stage with bits of costume as they motored through Iceland’s cultural landscape at breakneck pace. There were plenty of digs at Iceland’s folk tales for their lack of strong female roles, an entirely disturbing traditional lullaby which half the audience softly crooned along with them, and a sketch about an app which lets you check if you’re related to your date – I thought this was a joke but nope, it’s 100% real, that small population thing has its downsides.

Bára Halldórsdóttir’s approach in INvalid / ÖRyrki was totally different: it welcomed you into her home, or more accurately, her bedroom, recreated in her durational performance in an art gallery. She lay resting on a bed in a room was hemmed in by a wire fence covered in her medical records, simultaneously comfortable and trapped. There was something incredibly intense about it all; in the way that she was present but hidden, in the scent of her air diffuser filling the silent room, in the dense weight of documentation that demonstrated her work to raise awareness around disability and resting.

‘INvalid / ÖRyrki’ at Reykjavik Fringe

After the performance, I wanted to find out more about her and her activism. I read online that four MPs had recently tried to use the courts to silence her after the Klausturgate scandal, where she’d recorded them talking abusively about disabled people, women, and LGBTQ+ people in a Reykjavik bar. With its female Prime Minister and proudly progressive socialist policies, Iceland can feel like a utopia; reading this was a sharp reminder that the same tensions are bubbling up everywhere, erupting periodically like geysers.

A Sexual Series also tapped into fevered current debates; this time around asexuality and sex work. Emie Elva-Marie Elg’s perched on the end of a bed, dressed in pink latex delivering half-rhyming monotone pronouncements from the perspective of a “sexbot whore”, rebellious and ready to create a union with all other beings capable of separating sex and pleasure. It felt both cold and intimate, the audience sitting on armchairs and half-watching film footage of protests like a surreal sleepover. It’s less a straightforward “hey we exist”, more an intergalactic tangent that ended with a karaoke rendition of ‘Let it Go’ and a glitter cannon which refused to explode (the best kind!) in a satisfying metaphor for contained sexual power.

This Body by Systeria Collective is also identity-based, a way of considering the #MeToo movement from the perspectives of people whose narratives were left out: non-binary and people of colour. It felt both intimate and well-crafted, mixing pre-recorded first-person experiences of abuse with live ones, broken up with music and tender interludes of closeness between its two performers. But it also felt uncomfortable. It crystallised a lot of ideas I’ve been thinking about at the moment; the pressure that minorities are under to perform and explain their identities, the emotional toll of autobiographical work; and, more broadly, whether sharing personal abuse narratives is helpful if it’s not within a structure that supports both audience and performers.

This Body. Photo: Joanna Jakubek

In the post-show discussion for This Body, both performers talked about how draining it is to rehearse these stories of abuse. It’s a performance that trades in authenticity, but I started to wonder what a layer of protective artifice would add to the show; whether it’s time to move beyond awareness-raising, and to a place of activism, anger and dreaming new futures.

The Swan Woman mixes its real-life darkness with images that have a power of their own. Two narratives and worlds co-exist. On a big screen over the stage, scrolling text tells the story of a woman discovered with 12 live swans living in her tiny flat in Copenhagen. It’s a dazzlingly strange true story that unfolded just a few streets away from Rebecka Pershagen’s house, so she interviewed a collection of friends and neighbours in an attempt to piece together who this woman was, about how people become lonely and isolated, and why she brought these swans to live in immaculately clean but cramped company in her flat. And while these uncertain voices reel out, Pershagen picks her way around the stage in a physical performance that’s full of mingled determination and delicacy, becoming beautiful in a fall of white feathers.

The same desolate, lonely beauty soaked through Goodbye Gunther, the story of a terminally ill insurance broker pacing across an empty room, just his goldfish for company. It’s also hilarious. Its creator Franz Wurzinger has a knowing, self-deprecating shyness and precision that makes him intriguing to watch. He spends forever introducing his story and his character, constantly breaking out to apologise for effects that don’t come off – like in the hilarious opening sequence where he plays the Grim Reaper alongside a smoke machine that emits fog in hopelessly ill-timed little farts. It’s full of tragic irony and slapstick and little thwarted desires and the terror of death; but somehow, its playfulness disperses any potential for existential gloom, lightens it by creating a world where mundane objects have a life of their own, just as much as Gunther does. When he goes, the space is still alive.

‘Goodbye Gunther’. Photo: Hrafna Photography / RVK Fringe

Romeo + Juliet bursts with life of a different kind. It played out in what looked awfully like a greenhouse, perched on the edge of a bird sanctuary outside cultural venue Nordic House.

The performance venue for ‘Romeo + Juliet’ at Reykjavik Fringe

Its glass walls were soon vibrating to the footsteps its two performers, as they raced round trying to play every character in Shakespeare’s tragedy, making props by scribbling drawings on pieces of paper. It’s the kind of performance that extends an invitation that you can’t refuse; it feels like a shared horizontal endeavour, a reminder of fringe theatre’s wonderful equalising participatory potential, shorn of any ‘I the Artist’ grandeur.

Code Bend Time is all about play, too. Forget trying to speak Icelandic (or any other language for that matter) – it’s a place where you have to abandon self-consciousness and read abstract syllables off a card into a microphone. They’re interpreted by dancer Evangelia Kolyra, whose movements and responses are astonishing, moving from toddlerishness to sleekly mechnical to inflated and abstract. It’s like… training a furbie. Interacting with an eerie voice operated machine. Or trying to order a coffee armed with a phrase you learned off wikitranslate. She does the performance for four hours at a time, long enough to brew a new language.

Unfolding in the same space, Huldufugl’s Kassinn takes interactivity into still more elaborate dimensions. It’s a 3D virtual reality game that invites you to put on a helmet and enter a desolate rocky landscape where you’re trapped in a glass box. One voice smugly informs you of the advantages of your temperature-controlled, human-sized goldfish tank, while another more rebellious one coaxes you into breaking out of it. It’s kind of a game, but a gently exploratory kind, one focused on helping you feel your way through this hyperreal scenario.

Kassinn. Photo: Huldufugl / RVK Fringe

It’s also kind of a metaphor: thinking outside the box is the biggest hugest cliche for creativity but that doesn’t mean that Kassinn’s final image loses any of its power – you’re alone in the inhospitable desert, left wondering if life is really better without invisible, protective walls.

Reykjavik Fringe, a bit like the much-missed Forest Fringe used to be in Edinburgh, gives people a supportive framework to make work that’s porous and freeform and uncategorisable. Transparent Encounter is a work-in-progress walk through Reykjavik’s streets, led by an artist/translator in a white cloak. She invites us to write meaningful words in different languages on shop windows, and to ask passers by to do the same – the shopowners gazing out at us in a kind of tolerant bemusement. You can tell a lot about a city by observing if they’ll let artists freely meddle with their window displays: although, granted, the tolerance did falter when we approached a metal fan who laboriously painted a very long, apparently horrendously rude Icelandic word. It’s all so freeform, so unboxed that it’s on the brink of falling apart but there’s an inviting warmth to it, too. An older man pushing a pram full of binbags joins us for a while, and the performance’s participants help him repack his fragile load into sturdier bags when it starts to tumble.

‘Transparent Encounter’ at Reykjavik Fringe

Transparent Encounter is, its creator describes, a process of feeling out if she can be an artist, and what that might look like. I start to get the sense that at Reykjavik Fringe, at this stage of its life, is expansive and flexible to accommodate pretty much any kind of art anyone might want to do. I focus on the performance, but there are also painting exhibitions, gigs, poetry readings, comedy nights and more, all spilling out of small rooms across the city.

Reykjavik is expensive. There’s a generous natural abundance of geothermal activity and fish, but not much else grows. Food is so pricy that I fed myself on an alternating diet of cheese pastries and heavenly cinnamon buns, sourced from a favoured couple of bakeries; no regrets, all the best eats come from rustling paper bags. A weird silver lining is that by comparison, seeing art is really cheap. Going to a fringe show costs less than a pint of beer. And there’s something about the mood of Reykjavik in summer that feels open and receptive; crowds ambling through the streets in the endlessly light summer evenings of 22-hour days, looking curiously at posters and then stumbling into a basement or barn-like upstairs room. This fringe isn’t quite an established fixture, yet – but it felt like paths were being beaten and connections made, a quiet creative infrastructure establishing itself above and below the city’s streets.

Reykjavik Fringe took place from 29th June to 6th July 2019 – the festival funded travel and board for this feature, but its contents are editorially independent. More info on the festival here

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Alice Saville

Alice is editor of Exeunt, as well as working as a freelance arts journalist for publications including Time Out, Fest and Auditorium magazine. Follow her on Twitter @Raddington_B