The works of Holberg and other playwrights have been performed on the Faroe Islands for more than 200 years and there is great breadth in modern Faroese theatre. Since the 1960s everything from Beckett, Shakespeare, Chekov and Strindberg to modern Faroese drama has been performed on the islands. There have also been a number of ambitious adaptations of the novels of the Faroese William Heinesen in impressive productions at the Nordic House in Tórshavn, directed by the grand old man of Faroese theatre, Eyðun Johannesen.
As William Heinesen once commented so humorously, the Faroes are also a paradise for amateur dramatics. The best of the amateur companies have performed at great number of good plays, including works by Dario Fo.
Theatre as an element of national identity
The nationalist and romantic movements at the end of the 19th century led to a wish to retain and develop Faroese as the mother tongue of the islands. This was a period of national revival, encouraged by the dawning of industrialisation - a counter reaction against increasing influence from outside the islands. In 1889 Rasmus Effersøe wrote the first Faroese play. Theatre has enjoyed periods of great importance for the cultural life of the Faroe Islands, and has also functioned as a unifying medium and developer of a national horizon.
The old theatre in Tórshavn called Sjónleikarhúsið has been a central institution in the theatrical history of the Faroes. The Faroese poet Hans Andrias Djurhuus and William Heinesen were both associated with it and Kristin í Geil, one of the first left-wing intellectual writers on the Faroe Islands, wrote a number of plays to be performed there. However, a great deal has happened since those days.
The National Theatre
Theatre as an amateur activity was first recorded in the Faroe Islands in the 1780s. In that period Faroese University students, visiting home during their summer break from their studies in Copenhagen, performed comedies by Danish writer Holberg, and according to Svabo, knowledgeable people among the audience had deemed the performances to be “fully on the level one would expect on stages abroad”. During the 1800s there seems to have been regular theatre activity in the capital Tórshavn. Plays were mainly performed by the Danish upper class in the Islands and the repertoire was mainly Danish plays that were performed in Danish.
From 1888 and onwards a national movement took its roots among the Faroe Islanders, and plays were being written and performed in Faroese. Among the early playwrights were Rasmus Effersøe, Símun av Skarði and Hans Andrias Djurhuus. During the period 1888-1940 the repertoire was mainly of a romantic and light nature. During this period theatre was widely performed all over the islands as a part of the activities of a national youth movement that sought to promote Faroese culture and the Faroese language.
After World War II a more serious and modern approach to theatre as an art form emerged in the Faroe Islands. Especially at Havnar Sjónleikarfelag, The Theatre Society of Tórshavn, which was and still is an amateur company. The repertoire became more modern and challenging and the company began to work with professional theatre practitioners from abroad as directors. In the late 50s the first Faroese trained as a professional actor and director in Denmark. His name was Eyðun Johannesen and he was to become a catalyst for development of the Faroese theatre.
Although Faroese theatre continued to be solely an amateur activity all through the 1960s and most of the 1970s, Eyðun Johannesen did a systematic work in training the actors of Havnar Sjónleikarfelag in basic acting and performance skills, that enabled the company to perform most of the modern repertoire of the period and to inspire Faroese writers to write for the stage as well.
In 1977 Eyðun Johannesen took it a step further and founded the first professional theatre ensemble of the Faroe Islands, which was called Gríma. Although Eyðun Johannesen left the Faroe Islands to pursue a career as a theatre director in Denmark, and although the public grants to Gríma were severely cut during the period 1979-1989, the group survived and struggled on as the only professional ensemble of the Islands, until the National Theatre of The Faroe Islands, Tjóðpallur Føroya, took over that role in 2005.
Gríma played a very diverse repertoire ranging from modern stage dramas to experimental performances inspired by the theatre of Jersy Grotowski’s “poor theatre” and Eugenio Barba’s Odin Theatre. The main line in the repertoire, however, was modern drama.
In 2004 the Faroese Parliament passed a law to found the National Theatre of The Faroe Islands.Today the artistic director of the theatre is its only full time employee while actors, directors and designers and other artists and technicians are hired from project to project.
The National Theatre fully lives up to its obligations to perform Faroese drama and the best of modern and classic drama from abroad. It stages an average of 4 productions a year, and has managed to stage new Faroese plays on a regular basis. It has also so far produced an original Faroese opera and two musical plays for children, one of which was an original Faroese work.
During the 80s, 90s and 00s a number of young Faroese have taken professional training abroad in the field of theatre and at the present several more are training to qualify as professional actors, directors and set designers. Thus there is an artistic basis to expand the activity of the professional theatre in the Faroe Islands, if increased funding could be provided. Otherwise most of this young Faroese mass of talent will make their careers outside the Faroe Islands.
In the last 10 years, thanks to a determined effort from first Gríma and then the National Theatre, the production of new Faroese plays has steadily increased. But to keep it up takes an effort to constantly encourage Faroese writers to write for the stage.
Apart from the funding of the National Theatre the Faroese government also provides the financial resources every year to a limited number of free professional theatre groups to stage their own productions. This has inspired many young theatre professional to come up with outstanding productions. Especially the group Tvazz has excelled with some excellent and in the context of Faroese theatre very original and refreshing productions of modern European dramatists.
(Photos: Finnur Justinessen.)