Icelandic theatre may not be very well known in Scotland, but with the premiere of Jon Atli Jonasson play, Djupid (The Deep), at Oran Mor as part of the venue’s A Play, A Pie and A Pint season of lunchtime theatre, followed by a highland tour, all that may be about to change. This is down to director Graeme Maley, who has translated Jonasson’s one-man true story set around a small town fishing tragedy into an earthy Ayrshire dialect.
“It’s a very famous Icelandic story,” says Maley, “which happened in the 1980s, when everyone drowned apart from this one guy who miraculously managed to swim ashore. The guy it happened to has become a bit of a celebrity through his experience and the escape he had. Jon Atli met the guy it happened to, and he’s got quite a sea-faring background himself. His dad was a fisherman and a novelist, and Jon Atli’s very passionate about the sea.
“He originally wanted to do it in a straight English version, which I thought was a bad idea, because the scenes are really tied to the sea, and I thought it would be better to do it in a dialect that I knew. I’ve never translated before, but Jon Atli encouraged me to go for it. My Icelandic’s not great, so he did a very pure, slightly stilted English version, and after that we batted things between us to come up with the version we’ve got. I wanted it to be like what happened with the translation of (Quebecois writer) Michel Tremblay’s play, A Solemn Mass For A Full Moon In Summer which The Traverse did a few years ago, to do the play in a Scottish voice, but to keep the essence of the Icelandic flavour intact.”
As an Ayrshire boy and former trainee director at the Traverse Theatre who went on to run Liverpool-based new writing company, The New Works, Maley stumbled on Icelandic theatre by accident. A project with Paines Plough in London was seen by an Icelandic theatre company, who invited Maley to work with them. With a working relationship established, Maley went on to work regularly in Iceland, and eventually directed the Icelandic premiere of Blackbird, David Harrower’s controversial play which caused a stir in its original Edinburgh International Festival production. It was after seeing this that Jonasson approached Maley with a view to working on Djupid. Atli, as Maley points out, is something of a big hitter in an Icelandic theatre scene more used to physical-based work than text.
Born in Reykjavik in 1972, Jonasson dropped out of high school, and worked as a fisherman for a while himself in-between jobs as a pizza chef, a heavy metal DJ and a construction worker. In 2001 a collection of short stories about people searching for things in the snow, A Broken Beat, was published. Significantly, most of the stories protagonists never found what they were looking for. In 2002 Jonasson won a playwriting competition in Iceland, since when he has produced scripts for stage, radio, TV and film. An international residency at London’s Royal Court theatre in 2003 opened him up to global exposure, and in 2005, his translation of Buchner’s play, Woyzeck, was produced in London at The Barbican by Iceland’s Vesterport Theatre, featuring aerialists in a cast who reinvented the original play. In 2004, Jonasson’s play, Surf, another piece set on a dishing boat, received five nominations for the Grimen, the Icelandic theatre award, with Jonasson named as playwright of the year. Surf played in Germany the same year, and was later nominated for the Nordic Drama Award.
“He’s very much carved out his own path,” Maley says of Jonasson. “Icelandic theatre is very visual-based, and Jon Atli doesn’t really fit in with that.”
Atli’s original Icelandic version of Djupid opens in Reykjavik in May, while in the summer Maley will produce an English version with an Icelandic actor. Maley also hopes to bring other Icelandic works to Scotland.
“There are a lot of interesting Icelandic writers,” he says, “who are responding to the mess we’re in pretty quickly, and I think that speaks to all of us.”
Djupid (The Deep), Oran Mor, Glasgow, April 13-18, 1pm, then tours to the Highlands, The Lemon Tree, Aberdeen and Dundee Rep
The Herald, April 2009