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Breaker - Graeme Maley Brings Iceland to Scotland

In the run up to the 2014 independence referendum in Scotland, there has been much talk of Iceland as a role model to aspire to. As is usually the case, artistically and culturally, connections have been ongoing between the two countries for some time. While the recent left-field music festival, Tectonics, which presented events in both nations, is the highest profile Scots-Icelandic collaboration so far, theatre too has explored the similarities between the two cultures.

Much of this has been down to Graeme Maley, the Ayrshire-born director who has worked extensively in Iceland, and has brought a series of new translations of Icelandic plays to Scotland. The latest of these is Breaker, a new piece by Salka Gudmundsdottir, a young female Icelandic writer who looks set to make waves during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Maley's production of Breaker has already scooped the Best Theatre Award in this year's Adelaide Fringe, where it also picked up the Underbelly Edinburgh Award, which enabled the show's capital run.

“It's a story about a woman living on an unspecified island in the North Atlantic,” Maley says of Gudmundsdottir's play. “There's been a tragic event, and the woman meets a young guy from the mainland, who's gone to the island to discover his family's past. She becomes extremely defensive, with each of them defending their cultures, even though neither of them are completely right. So for me it's about these two cultures clashing, and both of them finding a way through that.”

Such a scenario sounds uncannily like something from the Scottish contemporary theatre canon over the last couple of decades, a notion which hasn't gone un-noticed by Maley.

“That's what intrigued me about it,” he says. “There's a whole back-drop to the play that's about sea myths, and there are all these connections between Scandinavian and Scottish cultures that you can see. The poetry in the two countries share similarities as well, and with that in mind, in translating it we've given it a very Scottish voice.”

This isn't the first time Maley has approached an Icelandic play in this way. Maley previously worked on a Scots-inflected translation of Jon Atli Jonasson's play, Djupid, or The Deep. Jonasson's monologue was told by a fisherman who survived a shipwreck, and was another example of how a specifically Icelandic story could be readily transplanted to Scottish shores. Both The Deep and Broken were first seen in Scotland as part of Oran Mor's A Play, A Pie and A Pint seasons of lunchtime drama, with Breaker being seen in 2012 in a twenty-five minute version called And The Children Never Looked Back.

Maley's connection with Iceland began several years ago. After training as a director at Queen Margaret University, he became an assistant director at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh, working on several shows there and at Dundee Rep, as well as directing Susannah York in Picasso's Women before wanderlust took him elsewhere. Maley became artistic director of Liverpool-based new writing company, The New Works.

Somewhere in the midst of all this, Maley worked with the London-based Paines Plough company on the development of Abi Morgan's play, Great Moments of Discovery. This was in association with the Arts Educational organisation, and saw Maley work extensively with student groups, including a party from Iceland.

Several years later, Maley was invited by one of his former charges to devise a piece with a group in Reykjavik. This developed into a show called Cactus Milk Garpur, or Klink & Bank in Icelandic. Out of this, Maley ended up directing the Icelandic premiere of David Harrower's play, Blackbird, which played at Hafnarfjardarleikhusid in Reykjavik, before touring Iceland.

“Audiences loved that play,” says Maley of what translated as Svarturfugl, “even though the whole process of trying to capture the rhythms of David Harrower's writing into Icelandic was sometimes more successful than others. They don't have as many words as we do, and it’s the same translating Icelandic into English, and then Scots. It's about capturing the essence of the play.”

It was after seeing his production of Blackbird that Jonasson first approached Maley with a view to him directing Djupid. It was Jonasson too who first introduced Maley to Gudmundsdottir, who Jonasson was mentoring. Dividing his time between Scotland and Iceland, Maley directed Iain Robertson, who appears in Breaker alongside Isabelle Joss, in Ronan O'Donnell's prison-set monologue, Angels, for the 2012 Edinburgh Festival Fringe. This year he also directed Rona Munro's translation of contemporary Chinese play, Secrets, presented at Oran Mor by the National Theatre of Scotland.

Meanwhile, back in Iceland, Maley directed Caryl Churchill's fiercely political short play, Seven Jewish Children, for Borgarleikhus in Reykjavik, and translated a new Icelandic play, Little Jesus, into English for the same company for a production in Madrid.

For all the international interest that Maley's productions of Icelandic drama have garnered across the globe, outside of his production of Blackbird, a similar interest in Scottish drama in Iceland has yet to be fully reciprocated. Indeed, interest in home-grown playwrights there is minimal, according to Maley.

“I did a series of readings of Scottish plays there,” he says, “and frankly there wasn't a great deal of interest. That's really different everywhere else. In Adelaide the amount of interest in Breaker was incredible. Having said that, there isn't really a culture of new writing in Iceland, so there's no real community in the way that there is in Scotland, and there's no one theatre that has a policy of putting on new plays. So it's actually easier for Icelandic playwrights to get their work on in Scotland and in other places than it is in Iceland, which is bizarre. What's been fascinating for me is taking Icelandic writing, and looking at it closely, and giving it a Scots voice. ”

Breaker, Underbelly until August 25th,

The Herald, August 16th 2013



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