The story so far – A leap through time and space: from Perth to the Lofoten Islands, where the Norwegian government’s arts funding program pulls the strings.
A photo album to accompany this piece can be viewed here.
“This is a really great place to have a gig – I mean with this view, not North of the Arctic Circle, 3 flights and a train ride from my house”.
I’ve done some strange gigs: on a RIB in the Thames; at conference tables in Barcelona; posing as a drinks waiter in a Chinese Restaurant, but the Stamsund International Theatre Festival knocks them all into a rabbit fur-lined hat.
Stamsund is a tiny fishing village of around a thousand people, in the Lofoten Archipelago in North West Norway. Operation Claymore, the first successful raid on Nazi-held territory, took place there – Enigma machine code books were retrieved, over 200 prisoners taken, and the one casualty was a British soldier, injured when he shot himself in the foot.
A hub for trawl fishing, it, for some inexplicable reason, has two theatres. By inexplicable…I mean that there was a very good reason why it existed, how it had been going on for over 15 years, and why on Earth I had been invited, just that none of these answers seemed adequate when stacked up against the surreality of the situation.
In 1998, the Norwegian government pumped a bunch of funding into this remote arts hub, and the SITR was established. Its website describes it thus:
…a collaboration between leading parties of the northern Norwegian performing arts scene…[established] to facilitate a dialogue between the contemporary oriented theatre professionals, and the small but lively fishing village. Our goal is to be a meeting point for northern Norwegian artists, where we can view each other’s work, discuss technical issues, and facilitate further cooperation.
With one local company focusing on puppetry and the other on theatre, their programming skews towards the ‘adventurous’ parts of the artistic spectrum – I only had time to see one of the shows during my brief visit, but it was a technically demanding, projections/paint/performance piece, reworking the story of Little Red Riding hood, and it was wonderful. The Basque company behind it, Insectotropics, are bringing it to London on 20th June, and it’s more than worth a watch. I doubt it’ll be in a fish factory, though.
A fully functioning fish-processing plant doesn’t sound like the ideal place for theatre, but then you see a show there, and it becomes the only place for that piece. The Post Office, recast as a shell for site-specific marvellousness; the art gallery/artist’s home hybrid, its presence heralded by the Munch-mocking guitars that dangle outside like pub signs; the old Town Hall, its Mondrian/Elmer the Patchwork Elephant doors and octagonal windows – show-less this year, but perhaps not for future festivals.
Wandering around, I found that every structure in the village became, in my mind, a potential venue, be it the WWII bunker; the scaffolded, cylindrical silo; the cobbled spit that stretched far out into the harbour. As far as establishing a dialogue and inspiring productions went, the festival was fulfilling its aims.
My show was at 10.30pm, after which DJ Stamgjest would take over, pumping an eclectic mix of soul, funk and hip-hop until 2am. The local pub, Mannfallet, named for a nearby hill, had established a pop-up bar in what seemed to be a fisherman’s garage, right on the edge of the water. Next to the venue was a boat, propped up on the harbourside, shielding a portacabin of toilets. Inside, a mess of tables and chairs, a black plywood bar with two handpumps and a fridge, and a very pleasantly lit stage, the back wall painted with a white square for the projector above it.
Come show time, the place was pretty full, and even the island’s friendly cat, Boris (who follows his owner everywhere, including mountain rambles) made an appearance. The people of Stamsund showed themselves to be a lovely bunch, chuckling at the right bits and being very kind afterwards – at most shows, if someone offers to buy you a drink, it’s as a ‘congratulations’, in Norway, it’s an act of utmost charity.
I met a couple of young chaps who had tweeted me prior to the event, convinced that stories of me coming to Stamsund were a rumour – they had seen me on YouTube a while ago, had asked their drama teacher to drive them to the show, and appeared rather surprised to see me in the flesh. I was surprised that anyone in Scandinavia would have even the vaguest recollection of my face or jokes, so the feeling was mutual.
Afterwards, I chatted and drank until DJ Stamgjest packed up his records – his final tunes being a Norwegian fishing shanty and a dance track that the festival staff all performed a synchronised seven minute workout to – and made the short walk back to my accommodation, past the pretty red and green fishing huts. It was sunny. It had been sunny for the entire time I’d been there. Comedy is frequently a nocturnal profession, and shows that take place in daylight feel, to me, unsettling and odd. Come Winter, Stamsund is dark all the time, the children eat fish oil to get their vitamins, and the Northern Lights wash the sky.
I had a wonderful time at the SITR, and would love to return next year, spending more than just the one night. Anyone who’s familiar with my work with Racing Minds can imagine what immersive, improvised fun we could get up to in a factory full of herring. While breakfasting the morning after my show, on some of the aforementioned fish, I noticed a familiar show on the television.
Scandinavia’s love of dark crime drama is well known – The Killing, Lilyhammer, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo all made it over to the UK, but it was both surprising and comforting to see that one of our own ‘police shows’ had made the transition the other way. Med hjartet på rette staden, it turns out, is a popular programme in Norway. To us, it’s the ITV prime-time, leisurely North Yorkshire crime and cattle ensemble piece Heartbeat. I suppose one can tire of noir.
Next time…Back to Perth, for week two of two – the show pulls itself together.