For the second episode in our podcast series featuring some of our most prominent performing artists, Salka Guðmundsdóttir sat down with director Una Þorleifsdóttir to discuss her diverse body of work in the theatre, her recent productions in Poland and her continuing role in educating new performing arts professionals.
Una has been a major presence on the Icelandic theatre in recent years, earning multiple nominations and two wins for Director of the Year at the Icelandic Stage Awards, and she also holds awards for Play of the Year and Best Production. Una studied in the UK, first at Goldsmiths College and then at Royal Holloway, University of London.
Una, what really stands out when I reflect on your career so far is its sheer diversity. You have directed new Icelandic plays, such as A Tragedy by Mikael Torfason at the National Theatre of Iceland, and most recently Sæunn‘s Last Days by Matthías Tryggvi Haraldsson at the Reykjavík City Theatre. But you‘ve also directed – and co-written – dramatizations of Icelandic novels new and old, you‘ve directed works by contemporary playwrights from abroad, such as Caryl Churchill and Jonas Hassen Khemiri, and even co-written a new dramatization of Ibsen‘s Enemy of the People. While you‘ve developed a strong theatrical language of your own, it‘s not possible to narrow your career down to an easy definition. Is this diversity something that nurtures you as an artist and how do you approach these different types of productions?
I think the core of my work is always the same. For me, the most important thing is that I‘m looking for a reading that reflects on something that I see around me, in society or in culture, that it raises some important questions. That‘s the starting point for the work in general. It doesn‘t matter where it comes from, it‘s more about the story and the questions it raises. I think this stems from my view of performance and theatre – that it‘s a place to question ideas, who we are, how we are, why we are like we are, why we believe what we believe. This can be both personal and in a greater societal context. You have A Tragedy, which is a play about an intimate relationship and violence, and then you have Ibsen‘s play about society, environmental issues, politics and corruption – but for me it‘s always the questions that attract me to it.
The diversity is also about challenging myself as an artist, to enter into different materials, different forms of theatre. Of course you repeat yourself, but I would prefer not to always be making the same performance – to be moving as I move and change my ideas. The things that interest me now might not have interested me 15 years ago.
Do you take your team with you on a journey into these questions?
Yes. I think that‘s very important. Even though there‘s this hierarchy inherent in the fact that I‘m a director, it‘s not a hiearchical process. Creativity is at its best when everyone is having fun and engaged, connecting to the material and understanding where they‘re going. The process of preparing, how you engage and go into something wthin the rehearsal room – for me that‘s also very important; for the questions, the space, for me to change my mind.
What about the creative team that you surround yourself with? Do you find yourself looking to work with the same people again in order to develop something or is it always exciting to find new team members?
It‘s always exciting to meet new people, to get influenced by different perspectives. But at the same time it‘s good to work with the same people because then you have a dialogue going – it‘s easy to carry on because everyone understands where everyone on the team is coming from, you can reflect on past experiences or past productions together and move forward into different directions.
You have worked on some very successful dramatizations. These include Woman at 1000 Degrees, based on Hallgrímur Helgason‘s novel which has been translated into many languages, and also your very daring re-imagining of Halldór Laxness‘ The Atom Station, which you created with his grandson Halldór Laxness Halldórsson. You sometimes hear voices within the theatre that complain about novels being put on stage, as if it‘s a form of artistic laziness to take something that people already know and transform it into a stage play. But obviously for you this is a form that you can take further to create something completely new. So what‘s your opinion on the role of dramatization in the theatre, and what lights the spark for you when it comes to dramatizing an already existing work of art?
It‘s the same thing, really – and you can also say that Ibsen is canon, why would you want to do the canon, why do Shakesepare, why do things that people already know? For me, in both cases, it‘s to do with the questions. Like Woman at 1000 Degrees, for me that‘s the story of women in war and what happens to women in a situation where there‘s no control. I think these are important questions to reflect on. And with The Atom Station, I think it did at the time and still does pinpoint the start of the conflict of Icelandic society, and it‘s always important to revisit that for new generations. People younger than me haven‘t really read that book. A story is a story, no matter what form it started in, and if it‘s still relevant, why not?
But how do you get rid of the respectful distance that we might be tempted to take, especially when confronted with something so deeply respected as Nobel Prize Winner Halldór Laxness‘ work?
Well, in the rehearsal space, a text is just a text, irrelevant of where it comes from. If it‘s problematic it‘s problematic and we might need to attack it, change it, find ways ... and with that dramatization, it was our aim from the beginning to address it in a different way. We didn‘t want to tell that story again, we wanted to tell it from our perspective, the perspective of hindsight and what has happened since, in politics and with this whole East/West divide. I would never have wanted to do it if it wasn‘t coming from that standpoint, because, you know, then you could just watch the movie.
I think part of why it was so successful is that it isn‘t very often that we have a dialogue with our own past. That made it such an interesting thing to see a 20th century text being re-invented and just this dialogue between past and present.
I think that was really important. Halldór Laxness Halldórsson did a very good job with that as well, and that‘s why I wanted him with me – he is of course Halldór Laxness‘ grandson so if anyone could do it, he could, because there is respect but of course also a lack of respect. I think it‘s important to be slightly disrespectful. If you don‘t approach the text as any text, just like words, then it stops your work and you can‘t move. And to me, text is just one element of many.
In theatre there‘s often a sense of trepidation about producing new plays, an acute sense of risk when it‘s an Icelandic text that‘s never been performed before. So I‘m interested in finding out how you as a director approach new writing, do you work closely with the playwright and how do you find this mental place where you put your trust in an absolutely new piece and take the whole team on a journey to bring it alive?
That‘s a good question about trust. If we start with that, for me it‘s a question about listening – listening to myself, to the space – and when you work with someone who is a new writer my job is twofold, in a way – in the beginning, the preparation period, it‘s more about assisting the playwright to envision what they are thinking and write it out. And then there is a line when it comes into the rehearsal room and it becomes my thing, my production, and of course when you‘re doing something for the first time, knowing it will probably not be done again for the next 20 years at least, of course you have to be respectful towards the intention of the author but also to your own artistic vision – so it‘s like a dance, in a way. But if you listen and are in tune with what the playwright is thinking, this transition can be quite smooth.
One of the most critically acclaimed productions of last year here in Iceland was your version of Caryl Churchill‘s Love and Information, a very striking production of a fantastic piece of playwriting. As someone who has both co-written for the stage and worked with plays by such different writers as Churchill, Ibsen and Khemiri, it‘s clear that you have a strong sense for stage writing and text, even if text isn‘t necessarily the core of what you‘re doing. So who are some of your favourite playwrights?
I think I have to say Sarah Kane. Her work and Martin Crimp‘s – and it‘s the same with Churchill really – they‘re not obsessed with situations, they‘re thinking about feelings or flow, or human nature. You‘re not in a room with a window on the left side where you can see a mountain out the window. I love poetry and I think that‘s why I love Sarah Kane‘s plays, they‘re kind of like poems about human nature and important questions. I love Khemiri as well, the way he works with the form. He plays a lot with the formation of theatre, the idea of a good play, and his writing is quite political. I also think new writing is so interesting, especially with young people, because they write very differently and approach things differently.
In 2019 your career took a new turn, which was when you first travelled to Poland to work in Kielce, at Theatr im. Stefana Zeromskiego w Kielcach. The first production that you did there was a piece that you were already highly familiar with.
The play [by Jonas Hassen Khemiri] is called ≈[almost equal to] in English and I had previously done it at the National Theatre in Iceland. This came about because the head of the theatre, Michał Kotanski, came to see one of my productions at the National Theatre, Thief of Time. He invited me to do a production in his theatre and since he really liked Khemiri and I had done it before it was an easy transition into working in a language I didn‘t know. Now I understand some Polish but I don‘t speak it. It was very interesting because it‘s a play about economics and how they influence your personal life, and it‘s very different doing it in Iceland than in Poland. The questions changed in this context.
What about the theatrical language? Poland rests on an old cultural base and has a distinctive theatrical tradition. What was it like to direct in a completely different culture – or was it completely different?
No – in general, most of us who move in this world of theatre know the same ideas, we studied similar ideas, read the same texts. So we come from a similar place in that sense. Of course culturally we come from a very different place, the idea of theatre in Poland is different from that in Iceland. But I thought it was going to be more different. It was just very inspirational and fun.
You clearly struck a note that resonated with Polish audiences since this production was named one of the best Polish productions of the decade. Subsequently, you went back in 2021 to direct again at the same theatre.
Yes, the play [Zaraza] was an adaptation of Camus‘ The Plague by Neil Bartlett. Of course it was influenced a lot by Covid and the process was interrupted three times. But the questions that this adaptation raises for me are important, not just in context with Covid – we had chosen the play already, before Covid, so that was kind of a bad or good coincidence, I don‘t know! – but there are questions about this ideological plague, of how you can manipulate societies, how we don‘t resist or how we resist, who resists and why. It was a smaller cast of five people, I had worked with all of them before.
It must be refreshing for an artist to change context completely.
Very. Meeting new people, like Mirek Kaczmarek, a set designer who came and worked with me in Iceland, we‘re actually working together now at the City Theatre. Just to meet people from a different background and culture, it‘s very valuable. As an artist, it influences your vision and your ideas.
It‘s great that we seem to finally be getting a close Polish-Icelandic connection in the arts because we have this big Polish-Icelandic community. We‘re finally hearing Polish voices and also this exchange of people between the two countries, it‘s vastly important.
I think so and I hope we get more of it.
But back to Iceland. Your work as a director has largely been with the National Theatre of Iceland, also the Reykjavík City Theatre and the Radio Theatre. Your career took off very rapidly within the context of the National Theatre, where you have worked very regularly for the past decade or so. Do you see both pros and cons to working within such established institutions? Does it restrain you in any way?
I don‘t think it has restrained me, I don‘t see it that way. Of course it has structures and ways of doing things. But I don‘t find it problematic. Working within the institutions gives you way more space and freedom in terms of production costs, availability of actors, how big you can do things and what you can imagine. You‘re not relying on Arts Council grants. So in that sense it‘s quite freeing. In the beginning I did two productions at the university student theatre and after that I went to work for the National. When I came home from England, having studied, I kind of didn‘t want to direct, I was fed up with it. And then when I started working wth the students I rediscovered why I wanted to do it.
One thing I think we sometimes lack here in Iceland is continuity, a continuing dialogue, and as we‘ve been talking I‘ve been thinking that you might be described as engaged in a dialogue with the National Theatre. Your work has evolved within that context.
Yes, and I was very lucky in the sense that both Tinna Gunnlaugsdóttir and Ari Matthíasson [former artistic directors of the National Theatre of Iceland] gave me this opportunity and I think there was an understanding that to develop as a director, like with actors, you need time and space. You need to be able to develop your craft. You don‘t do that if you don‘t direct.
Speaking of important institutions here in Iceland, one thing that we have to bring into the discussion is the fact that as well as being a director, you‘ve been an educator of young stage arts professionals. You joined the Iceland University of the Arts back in 2004 when it was a very young institution, although based on older educational institutions. You were one of the people who shaped the department of Performing Arts. You were a permanent member of staff for 15 years and I gather you‘re still attached to the department as a visiting lecturer. What was it like to join a new university as a recent graduate yourself, what were these early years like?
A lot of fun, a lot of hard work. Sometimes very difficult. In the beginning it was quite controversial, there was a controversial head of the department hired, we started with new programmes and I remember some very difficult public meetings about that, particularly the programme that is now called Theatre and Performance Making. But there was also a lot of enthusiasm within the group of people who were there, and a desire to change the landscape, be influenced by what was happening around us, both in the UK, Scandinavia and Germany. You have to start changing the education if you want to change the landscape. You educate people who can see other possibilities and broaden the horizon for the performing arts.
And do you see this reflected today?
Yes, I do. I think there‘s been a massive change in these nearly twenty years now, both in where the funding is going, also what‘s happening within the institutions that are slowly changing, different ways of seeing performance and theatre.
Do you agree with me that the programme that you mentioned, Theatre and Performance Making, has been particularly influential?
Yes, I think so. A lot of the kids – I call them kids! – who have graduated from that programme and are still graduating have done some amazing stuff and changed a lot of things, developed a whole new audience.
You were a recent MA graduate yourself when you joined the university and your teaching career started before your directing career took off. It‘s quite interesting how you built these two full-time careers side by side, and very successfully in both instances. Has your university work and the contact with students influenced you as an artist?
Yes, for me teaching is a two-way street. It‘s not just me telling people what to think, it‘s a dialogue. If you have the opportunity to work with young people who are often very radical, wanting to burn everything and tear it down, you reflect yourself against it. Developing my career – it was a lot of hard work but I have good people around me and good bosses. It‘s important for me to have a continuing connection with the university, I love teaching. I‘m going to be teaching in Norway now also, at KHiO, lecturing on intuition and leadership. As part of the Alexandria Nova project, a network of directing schools in Northern Europe, I wrote an article [in the book Looking for direction: rethinking theatre directing practices and pedagogies in the 21st century] about intuition and the creative process, which is what I‘m interested in research-wise.
So before we wrap up, for inspiration for our listeners, whose work here in Iceland currently interests you?
I really like some of the young writing, like Kolfinna Nikulásdóttir, Matthías – whose work I directed – and Hildur Selma. Also, directing-wise, I‘m interested in what Anna María Tómasdóttir has been doing, what Gréta Kristín has been doing. For me, to see something new and meet new material is more inspiring than seeing something that I‘m more familiar with. I like the dance scene too – well, I just like people who do things honestly, from a place of vulnerability, who are true to themselves.
What about inspiration from overseas? Do you manage to stay in touch with what‘s happening?
I try to see stuff when I travel, a read a lot, I google. Something that really inspired me that I read recently was seven methods of killing kylie jenner [by Jasmine Lee-Jones], which was on at the Royal Court. It was amazing, the way it was written and thought out. Brilliant piece of performance text. And of course I‘m of the generation that used to love Forced Entertainment, Pina Bausch, and all of these influences reside in our bodies and our artistic memory. There are a lot of people doing good stuff, like I saw a lot of good things in Poland. If it‘s honest and vulnerable and people are going for what they believe in, it‘s generally inspiring.
What one step do you think could improve the Icelandic performing arts scene and take it forward?
I think we need to change the way that the independent scene is funded. It needs more money and a different structure. Like I was saying before, about how you need to be able to develop – it‘s kind of useless for you to get 50% of the money and only wages for half the people half the time if you‘re supposed to be developing and becoming what you can become. This really needs to change, especially for young people. I think people my age should not really be in the same category as young people, it‘s not fair for them and not fair for me either. You need to be able to take risks and be brave and do all the things you need to do to grow.