For the third instalment of our podcast series, featuring interviews with some of our most exciting artists working in the performing arts, Salka Guðmundsdóttir caught up with playwright Tyrfingur Tyrfingsson on one of his sojourns to Iceland from his home in the Netherlands.
Tyrfingur might be described as a superstar playwright here in Iceland, having steadily grown his audiences over the past 12 years from his not-so-humble beginnings as an arts university graduate, to the big stage at the National Theatre of Iceland, with just about everything else in between. A multi-award winning playwright, Tyrfingur‘s work has also been featured overseas at festivals and showcases.
Tyrfingur, when I was looking back on your career so far, I saw a strong thread connecting the first piece of yours that I saw – Grande, your graduation piece from the Iceland University of the Arts – to your most recent one, Seven Fairytales of Shame, at the National Theatre. Grande was an intense solo show and like your most recent work it revolved around internalised and then externalised shame that leads to self-immolation and destruction. You‘re obviously writing about shame explicitly in the deliciously messed-up Seven Fairytales, but am I right in thinking that shame is always a driving force in your work?
Well, I consider playwriting a form of exorcism and I want to exorcise this shit out, including shame – and also to look at the history of shame, the story that shame is built on, because to keep shame alive I must constantly be telling myself it should be there. It‘s not a natural-born feeling, it‘s learned. When I was quite young, even before the art academy, I got a job at the acute psych ward, the reason being that it was the financial crisis in Iceland and you couldn‘t get work anywhere so my mother who was a high-ranking member of staff there got me a job as an orderly. What you do there is when you show up for a shift and there‘s a new patient, you get this folder and in the folder there‘s the intake where a psychiatrist has written the story of this person. Why is this man here today? What happened? And you read this and then you go out to smoke a cigarette with him or whatever, and the first thing this person says to you is: “I wanna kill you”, and your instinct is, well, I just read your story and I understand that. Of course you want to kill me, this is terrible. So there‘s something about getting such a deep understanding, at this young age, of shame and also of mental illness. To be so close to it at this age, it really changed me and I‘m incredibly thankful for it.
I like how you don‘t romanticise mental illness.
Thank you, and I would also say that when someone is severely mentally ill, when that person is sane, it‘s the sanest person you will ever meet. I was going through difficult things myself, I very often felt like one of the patients, and they were incredibly supportive. It wasn‘t very professional of me, I was 19 and had no education in this field, but it was nice, there was a deep togetherness that never really left me.
One of your distinguishing features as a playwright is writing about people that we might not see as kind or likeable, but you are on their side. Sometimes we see writers depicting people that they clearly don‘t care about, they just put them up there for laughs or to represent something horrible. But even with your most broken characters, you do truly care about these people.
I like the old Jungian term that the bigger the light, the bigger the shadow – the bigger the shadow, the bigger the light. When there‘s a big, heavy shadow in someone, there‘s an incredible light there as well. So when you walk through the shadow with them you find something remarkable. At the beginning of a play I‘m taking someone‘s hand and we‘re going to walk towards the light, come hell or high water, and we‘re going to talk until there‘s nothing left to say. That‘s the exorcism. Of course it can be incredibly brutal, but who cares when it‘s entertaining.
This is really quite a classical notion of playwriting and catharsis is definitely a term I would attach to your plays. So it‘s interesting that you immediately start talking about exorcism. I think people might sometimes have been quite surprised to go on that journey with you, they might be a bit put-off by the setting or the intensity but then they get drawn in. I guess that goes back to the basic roots of playwriting.
Yeah, and let‘s not forget what Freud wanted to do – he wanted to recreate catharsis within the patient. And theatre does many things well but it does nothing as well as it does psychology. You‘re there with the people in the room, you‘re not hidden behind a screen, you cannot pick up your phone, so it‘s an intense togetherness that is incredibly healing. Which is exactly the same thing that happens with a psychiatrist, psychologist or therapist.
You went to the Iceland University of the Arts, you also studied in Brno in the Czech Republic and you studied Writing for Performance at Goldsmiths College in London. Were you always set on playwriting, as opposed to something trendier at the time, like site-specific immersive durational performance-making? A lot of people take therapeutic theatre or performance into that direction.
At the time, playwriting was not fashionable, it really wasn‘t. There was talk in the 90s, which I remember as a child, that theatres in Europe and in Iceland should close their costume departments, the wig departments, even the makeup departments, because from now on we would all be wearing turtlenecks and black tights like Liza Minnelli‘s. During the post-dramatic playwriting era, story was supposed to be over. But you only have to listen to a child coming home from kindergarten telling you what happened and you realise that drama is not over, it‘s very much alive. Around 2010, 2011, all these departments were popping up, especially in the British schools – you would either study to become an actor or a devising actor. But all these departments have been closed down now. It was a part of the ‘fuck story’ era, saying we‘re not going to tell stories anymore, which comes from Derrida, a reading of Foucault maybe. But we‘ve left that era now and we might be entering an era of ‘whose story’ – who is telling the story, who is allowed to tell which story and so forth and so on. Very much back into the story game. I was very lucky that this was actually how it developed. What rescued me from getting too drunk on my own story was realising, working on the psych ward, that there are people who are much more interesting than I am. Also a saying from Fran Lebowitz: Your life story would not make an interesting book, don‘t try. And I don‘t like the saying ‘I step into other people‘s shoes’, it has an assholeness about it, but I can come pretty damn close to showing somebody, to creating their reality or at least interpreting it in a way that in any case is somewhat entertaining.
Speaking of realities, another theme in your work seems to be these shut-off, claustrophobic communities that have their own set of rules and actively work to make sure that people don‘t escape. The characters in your plays are often stuck in situations where the abnormal has become the norm and everyone follows this illogical logic that might be the only thing keeping the whole world of the play from collapsing. In this context, I think of the family in your play The Potato Eaters, where the mother is like a spider trying to fix everyone in her domestic web, and the advertising agency where Commercial of the Year was set, but most memorably the characters in Blue Eyes, stuck in an endless loop performing their own fucked-up adaptation of an old children‘s story. Why are you drawn to these clusters of people and do you see them around us?
Well, I see them very much in myself. The thing with suffering is that it‘s quite addictive. For a while we‘ve been trying to look for the perpetrator – you know, I feel a certain way and I almost start this Agatha Christie play to figure out whose fault that is. But to go back to Freud, he said okay, the price we pay for civilisation is neurosis – and neurosis is very much the repetition of bullshit. The problem with suffering is that it is of course terrible but also sometimes feels like home, and it takes a lot of bravery to step out of it. So I‘ve seen this in myself, that I‘ve created a lot of misery without really having to. The philosophers say we suffer more in our heads than we do in our lives. I try to dramatise the pain I inflict on myself in my head, but again, it‘s not because somebody did something to me, it is to look at this price we pay for civilisation. Always keeping the lid on, going against my instinct and repressing it so we don‘t just go ahead and kill each other, but it tends to come up later as something else, something even more ruthless. Very often I will have parts of me that I have become so good at negotiating with or even ignoring and they become increasingly more vulgar, trying to get my attention, trying to get me to listen, very often trying to help me. I think I‘m dramatising what‘s called internal family systems, or the parts therapy notion that we all of us have a mother inside us, a critic, a small child, a firefighter who makes me drink a gallon of vodka just to put down the flames of misery and suffering. All of a sudden they become characters. I‘m probably trying to dramatise myself out of unnecessary suffering.
I think it was while watching Blue Eyes that I thought, this could all just be inside one person‘s head, sort of internal violence. But we were talking about how you decided to write for the stage, specifically. Did you have any playwriting heroes as a young man? Did you go to the theatre a lot? How did you begin to understand this form?
I started going to the theatre at a very young age and I started writing when I was six years old or something. I realised that I could write but there was nothing special about it. But when I wrote plays there was something there. I was used to being bad at stuff, I was very bad at sports for example. In my soccer league there was A, B, C and D – I was in D3.
All the best people were in D3.
Exactly, and you meet a lot of them in the theatre later on. I kind of followed the bliss, because I had nothing else to follow. At the time, the National Theatre of Iceland had these small stages and a lot of directors that are now world-renowned – Egill Pálsson, Gísli Örn [Garðarsson] – they were coming up at the time. They did the classics but they also did a lot of contemporary plays. Plays by Jón Atli [Jónasson], and I was very young when I saw McDonagh‘s Pillowman. But when I read Jean Genet for the first time I really felt at home, I felt understood. The end of The Maids where they‘ve killed the lady and gone inside, fantasising about walking together like two children on the beach – and I just thought it was so relatable, it‘s crazy but I understood it. This kind of fantasising about something just to save myself from this moment. And then a lot of very good Icelandic playwrights, Hrafnhildur Hagalín for example, Hávar Sigurjónsson. I saw Titus, a wonderful production that Vesturport did. This was around 2000 so I was quite young, thirteen or fourteen, and it was a very good era in Icelandic theatre.
I remember there was a lot of going to see surprising things, sometimes in surprising spaces as well. When Vesturport was starting there was real excitement about that. You tend to forget now, because they‘re just people who are very good at what they do. Which kind of relates to the next question; when I was preparing for this interview I started off automatically thinking of you as a young playwright, but then I thought okay, wait, what is this tendency to think of everyone under the age of sixty as some kind of adult child, and second of all, aren't we basically middle-aged by now, and thirdly, isn‘t Tyrfingur simply established as a highly successful playwright rather than some kind of enfant terrible? People don‘t always transition well from up and coming to established artist, but you‘ve definitely made it through that in-between period by now. Is being appreciated for what you do simply a good place to be or do you miss having to prove yourself?
First of all, because I don‘t have any children – if you don‘t have any children you have to make the decision to become an adult. I have to stop myself from telling stories about myself as a child or talking about myself as my parents‘ child almost every day. It‘s easier when people have children because they‘re literally put in the position of an adult by a child. I have to make the decision and fail, fail again and fail better at it. With our generation, we project a lot on older people and we remain in that childlike role. But I never really liked being young and up and coming. This is a lot easier. Just on a practical level, I probably don‘t have to fight that much to get something made. I still have to fight for it but it‘s not such an uphill battle.
Speaking of middle age, I think we all know that the heroes of our culture life are middle-aged and older women. They go to shows and concerts and talks, they read books and go to the library, they boost audience numbers by bringing their often reluctant husbands along. You write beautifully for older women, all these large and complicated characters who have had very memorable performances by some of our best actresses. You have been writing for older women since you were a very young playwright. There‘s a lovely symmetry in the fact that older women have also embraced your playwriting, with all its perversities and discomforts. These are the theatregoers who buy the tickets. I think we underestimate older women, don‘t we?
I remember when we were doing The Potato Eaters, the main character there is somewhat older and she‘s, let‘s say, perverted – a very sensual woman, if you will – and she‘s also guilty of shit. I remember the theatre worried a lot – and she was also left-wing – that we were, within quotation marks, criticising the audience member. It wasn‘t ‘oh, these evil right-wing people who are such assholes’ – no, it‘s you, lady who bought the ticket, look at yourself here. Do you recognise something? I never worried about it, but the theatre did. But of course they loved it. I mean, I love seeing some gay asshole on a TV show. It‘s nice to be able to see somebody travel within the shadow part of themselves. Even if it feels like exorcism, somewhat brutal or even vulgar, it also has a form of bravery that is almost contagious. Even if someone is being an asshole on stage, he‘s being himself or herself. She‘s being her own asshole, you know, her own bleached asshole. And that demands courage, from the actress and from the character. Courage is something that we all like seeing.
Your plays have travelled quite widely already and you‘ve had performances and readings in France, the US, Poland, Italy – there have been translations into German, Polish, English, French, Dutch and Italian. I don‘t know how much you‘ve been able to attend these events, but have the audiences responded in any way differently from audiences here in Iceland?
Not really. I know dance can travel and opera travels, but theatre is inherently local, so I was never a big believer that this would translate well. So it has been kind of surprising, how well it seems to travel. The world is also changing, we‘re becoming more interested. We‘re seeing weirder stuff. It all goes back to Netflix, people are watching increasingly weird stuff, which is kind of nice. Maybe this wouldn‘t have travelled as well twenty years ago. In France I remember people were very happy to see something from Iceland that‘s not cutesy, that feels somewhat grown-up, and isn‘t pretending to be innocent or childlike, which is something that is very rich in our culture. You can say many things that are wrong with these plays, but that is not one of them.
One thing I noticed going over these languages and locations is that you are being picked up on the continent rather than in Scandinavia, for example. It seems to me that you‘re more of a European playwright than a Nordic one.
I have lived in Amsterdam for seven years now, before that I was in the Czech Republic, also in Vienna as a young man. I‘ve attended a lot of French and German theatre, and of course Dutch theatre. So my impulses are probably coming from there, much more than from Scandinavia. With the Nordic countries, our tendency is to feel small. So there‘s a bigger chance of you seeing a British play in a Swedish theatre than seeing a Scandinavian play. We‘re still so crazy about English whatever – culture, theatre – and American plays – and they often don‘t translate that well because it‘s just so different. Scandinavian theatre is somewhat decorative, it doesn‘t penetrate as much, it‘s not as confronting as for example Dutch theatre. British plays are somewhat safe, don‘t misunderstand me, I admire the quality of a lot of them, but it‘s also that we‘ve gotten more used to them – like I haven‘t seen a Lars Norén play in Iceland for decades. You see a lot more of them in the Netherlands, for example. We lack interest in each other and I think it‘s probably our collective shame about being small, so we‘d rather try to ride with the bigger nations. We used to study a lot in Germany and France, but now a lot of people go to Britain and we have been so Americanised, so it‘s also that – a lot of people don‘t read other languages than English, so we can‘t access these plays, sadly. I really sincerely hope that‘s changing, because it‘s a lot more dynamic to see a Norwegian play in Iceland than to see a British one. It‘s going to hit closer to home.
I think some of the most interesting things that I‘ve seen in the past ten years have been Finnish plays. There‘s a beautifully strange quality to them that also resonates with us, I think. Why aren‘t we seeing those?
I‘m actually going to Helsinki to attend a festival there and I can‘t wait to see the theatre there. It‘s also the way that the Finnish educate people. Many of the best conductors of the younger generation are Finnish. You can also see how actors are trained, I would dare to say that they‘re somewhat better trained or at least more disciplined than many Scandinavian actors. The Finnish have something between the Russian culture and the Scandinavian culture, which creates something very special. I would like to see more Finnish plays but of course nobody here reads Finnish.
Do you see the Icelandic scene differently now that you‘re sort of half outside and half inside it? You come here to work but you do most of your work in the Netherlands and then you travel in Europe.
I would say this – I think the Icelandic theatre scene is quite strong. I would probably not have thought that before I moved away, but because I see so much I also see the quality within the acting profession here. The generation above us of directors is excellent, we have Egill Pálsson, we have Una [Þorleifsdóttir], we have Óli Egils [Ólafur Egilsson], Stefán Jónsson, several people who are quite good at this. Same goes for playwriting. When people say to me oh, it‘s so much better abroad, I ask people: Where? Where are you looking at theatre, because I want to go there! Maybe the most important thing that we do is the ensemble, because people in theatres all over the world have been dismantling their ensembles, sadly. Seeing an actress and an actor in their sixties, even in their seventies, playing together in a scene when they‘ve been playing together since they were twenty, is amazing. It‘s the most important and precious thing that the theatre owns, that a country owns in the performing arts – people who have been performing together for a long time. Even if they‘re just doing a small role, they bring every single role that they‘ve played together and it becomes so dynamic and rich. So I admire the Icelandic theatre scene. Of course I‘m in it, so that makes me sound like an asshole, but I really do.
But you‘re not just on the theatre scene anymore. We need to mention your recent foray into writing for the screen. A script that you cro-wrote with director Elsa María Jakobsdóttir became the movie Wild Game which has been a massive hit at the cinema this year and one of the most seen Icelandic films ever. Then there‘s also the series The Descendants by director Tinna Hrafnsdóttir, currently in post-production, where you‘re one of the writers. It‘s a totally different form and one where words aren‘t as welcome as they can be on the stage. How do you find writing for the screen?
I have been very luck with the projects. Wild Game is of course based on this Italian film, Group of Friends. Let‘s call it what it is, it‘s a play – somebody just put the camera on. But it‘s beautifully directed by Elsa María and the cinematographer is also fantastic, and the actors. It came about during Covid and I just said yes, why not? Of course much of the craftsmanship is the same. You have to be more sparse. I do think it‘s made me a better playwright because you have to kill your darlings, I mean, it‘s a massacre – it‘s a fucking massacre! But that‘s very healthy. Something I‘ve always tried to do in the theatre but is very true in film is that you have to serve the project. You don‘t know what stays in, what leaves, what they change, what they ad lib. So it has to be done from somewhat of a distance, which is also very healthy for me who‘s a bit turbulent – okay, let‘s say a bit crazy – I have to put on my big boy pants and be an adult about it. I cannot be a screaming little child. The way to do that for me has been to say I‘m going to serve this play, I‘m going to serve this film or this TV show. I like the old Stanislavski phrase that he didn‘t want to hire an actress because she wasn‘t interested in theatre, she was interested in herself in theatre. This is why I go to the theatre so much, I want to keep the audience member in me alive, to be an audience member who sometimes is allowed to participate, so that my asshole ego doesn‘t take over and I start ruining my own career by behaving like a fucking asshole. There‘s something about film and television that is a humbling act. Even if you believe in the script you wrote, you still don‘t know if it‘s going to work. With a good play you have more of a feeling that this is probably going to be fine, but with the film thing you have no clue. It‘s a constant letting go and also relying upon others. In film, I‘m so new, although I can write dialogue and understand the craftsmanship of it, they use all these other terms and I have to ask, what does that mean? The craziest thing when I went to the set of Wild Game is that it actually works, you go into a house and it‘s an actual house – a house in the theatre is very shitty, someone took a picture of a house and glued it onto something, there you go, that‘s your house – but even the sink worked! So I was like a kid in candyland. I was very surprised that it became so popular. A lot of other people had expectations, I really didn‘t, but I‘m pleasantly surprised that it did.
So what next for Tyrfingur Tyrfingsson? That‘s always a really annoying question but I felt like if anyone can get through that question, it‘s probably you.
I am one of the few people who actually like it. Mostly people want to talk about something that you did a long time ago and I‘ve completely lost interest in it. I‘m working on something now and nobody else is interested in it! I‘m doing An Evening with Heiðar the Beautician. It‘s a play where a known person, Heiðar snyrtir [beautician], is one of the characters. He‘s alive but he enters fiction, so it‘s a very strange play on form. It‘s taken me so many drafts to get it into something that actually works, and it was devastating in the beginning because I did my utter best and it wasn‘t good enough. I did my utter best again and it still wasn‘t good enough. But I put it to rest for a while and then all of a sudden the solution started coming to me and it‘s coming together quite nicely now. It‘s a play about beauty, I think. One of the Scandinavian thinkers – okay, there‘s Luther who created a lot of the way we think but also Kierkegaard who talked a lot about aesthetics, ethics and spirituality. And I think in a lot of us, this is what‘s fighting each other, the three parts that fight within us. Beauty and ethics seem to be at odds with each other these days, almost like truth and beauty seem to be arguing with each other. I think I‘ve managed to dramatise that – accidentally. It‘s also an homage to this man who had a very difficult life, someone who believes in beauty like a lot of people believe in God. He‘s a flawed man, some might say, and he would probably say that himself, but he is the man who created the Icelandic beauty queen. There was a period when he was running the show where year after year, an Icelandic woman would be crowned the most beautiful woman in the world. He even worked with Donald Trump who of course ran many of these competitions. He firmly believes in seeing beauty in everyone and trying to lift it up and bring it out. I really like that sentiment in him. Then he has more difficult issues which we touch upon a bit. He‘s nevertheless a fictional character in a fictional play. I talked to him the other day and we made a deal with each other – he says half of this is true, the other half is not, and let‘s never tell anyone which half is true and which half is not. I thought that was a good deal.
And what about other people‘s work? Whose work inspires you if you‘re stuck or just want to see something to get your juices flowing?
What I will go to these days in Amsterdam, because I mostly go to the theatre there, is something by the old little theatre troupes, many of them are from the sixties and have been working together since then. Small stage, maybe an audience of forty people. In Iceland I like Rúnar Guðbrandsson, a legendary theatremaker. I‘ve loved everything he does and he has a wonderful performance on now, doing the Marat/Sade with people 70+, the older actors of the nation. Árni Pétur [Guðjónsson] who‘s in that ensemble, an actor now in his seventies, is a wonderful talent who always inspires me.
Is there something that you would change about the scene here in Iceland, even though we agree that it‘s dynamic?
I would put more money into little groups. If you ask for funding you should get funding for four years, or five years. A lot of talent has disappeared because every year you have to apply for funding and you get it every second year, every third year. That scene needs more money. There should be fewer groups who get money for a longer period of time. In four years, if they‘ve done good stuff, they get another four years. That‘s how it‘s done in the Netherlands and that‘s why groups like Maatschappij Discordia have been working since the sixties. You should be able to be an actor who does only strange, small plays in a small auditorium. Not everyone has to be in the ensemble of a repertoire theatre, it‘s not for everyone. That talent needs to be nurtured and I think this would probably be the way. Sometimes I see friends of mine, in the Netherlands for example, that have maybe belonged to a group since they were 21 and they‘re now in their late thirties. I feel envy – I went into the theatre and I love it and I‘ve been treated like a prince my whole career, but there‘s something about the camaraderie of a small troupe, I envy it.
And being allowed to fail a bit, to make something that isn‘t that great. The next thing might be spectacular.
Exactly. You can see it in drafts of plays. For example this thing I‘m doing with the beautician. First draft, not great. Second great, somewhat worse. Third draft, okay – it‘s in the fifth or the sixth draft. This is a play that has a history of being bad. It‘s the same with a group like this, they will do three shows that are terrible so they can make the fourth one that‘s fantastic.
Wise words on which to end our time here, Tyrfingur. Thank you so much for taking the time to come see us – and for those of you listening or reading, stay tuned for another episode of the Performing Arts Centre Iceland podcast coming soon.