There's nothing like trying to drag a suitcase through the streets of Edinburgh at the tail end of the Fringe to make you want to escape to a quieter place. I finished four inspiring days at the world's biggest arts festivals with Rachel Clerke's blistering Cuncrete ringing in my ears and headed for Iceland; a place that couldn’t really be more different to Edinburgh in August.
Reykjavik’s Every Body’s Spectacular festival is collaborative working at its best. Two distinct programmes, Lókal and Reykjavik Dance Festival, combine for an annual festival of local and international work. We’ve been lucky to have been invited for a number of years, and it’s been great to get to know some of the local artists on this remote volcanic rock.
This year’s edition included a strand called ‘Everybody’s City’, a series of walks, performances and site-based work taking place around the city, including Theatre Replacement’s beautiful Town Criers on the harbour front, a show called It’s Volleyball Hallelujah taking place in a gymnasium, and a number of other works that explored Reykjavik’s terrain. My feet ached by the end of the weekend.
On Saturday afternoon I found myself in an empty house, alone. Lazaretto was an audio work by Inner Ear that invites you to explore a derelict house. You’re unsure at first what happened there. It feels both clinical and oppulent. Full of dust, ripped wallpaper, empty cupboards. As the piece unfolds and you move from room to room, you begin to understand that this was at various times a hospital, a quarantine, a place for refugees. A sanctury for travellers who have nowhere to go. A place where, in the words of one of the interviewees in the work ‘you never want to spend a night’.
The people who contributed to Lazaretto had all at some point found themselves without a home. Those with tuberculosis, cholera, influenza, typhus or scarlet fever. Arriving in the city ill or injured, they sought respite and care. The piece was intensely moving.
As I stared out of a fourth-floor window across to the harbour, I thought about the words the festival directors had used in their brochure intro to describe some of the questions the work in the festival was trying to explore: ‘violence, vulnerability and precarity’. and how back in the UK they are a pretty accurate description of how the past few months of political meltdown have felt for many. I was reminded about the power of art to make us think simultaneously about difference and similarity, about our relationship to those around us and to the place, the city, the country, the world in which we live.
At the end of If Only You Knew, by Magnea Björk Valdimarsdóttir (which was mainly in Icelandic, so I didn’t have a clue what was going on (although it did include a rather beautiful moment in a swimming pool with elderly syncronised swimmers)), a car drives slowly down a street with a woman sitting in the boot shouting ‘Please by Kind’ through a loud-hailer. There was a taxi following her beeping its horn angrily the whole way down the road. Ah well.
P.S. Did you know that beer was illegal in Iceland until 1989?