Turning the World Upside Down: Gisli Örn Gardarsson

MAY 4, 2014

By Alexandra Juckno

Gisli Örn Gardarsson

Gisli Örn Gardarsson warns you to look out for the shark. The creature just might be his favorite part of The Heart of Robin Hood, playwright David Farr’s new adaptation of the mythic outlaw’s origins. The Icelandic director helmed the premiere for Farr at Stratford-upon-Avon’s Royal Shakespeare Company and is now bringing his production to the American Repertory Theater with the shark of Sherwood Forest in tow.

Spend a few minutes with Gardarsson and the fact that he has added a shark to a typically landlocked story comes as no surprise. Often hailed as a young genius and one of the most exciting theater artists working today, this Icelandic director has become known for thrilling, space-inventive productions whose unique visual worlds manage to capture the heart of a story without seeming gimmicky. In a Gardarsson production, it makes sense that Romeo and Juliet would bound into the air on the wings of their love; that the disorientation of George Büchner’s eponymous Woyzeck is expressed by repeated immersions in a large tank of water; that the insectified Gregor Samsa of Kafka’s Metamorphosis skitters up the walls and ceilings of a house literally turned upside-down by his transformation. Gardarsson’s enthusiasm for his work shows through immediately; he has an energetic manner of discussing his creative process—often throwing out the words “exciting” or “thrilling”—and this inspires a sense of infinite possibilities in the listener. And watching Gardarsson’s work makes one feel as though the story is exploding off the stage, that mere walls cannot contain the play.

Gardarsson’s explanation of how he came to a career in theater is slightly tongue-in-cheek for a man whose work has won countless accolades around the world. He spent thirteen years as a gymnast and even represented Iceland as part of the country’s National Gymnastics Team, but found that there was no career in gymnastics past a certain age. A self-described “nerdy type,” Gardarsson entered university in Norway to study Western European Knowledge and Philosophy. One of his classmates signed him up for a student production of a Brecht play as a practical joke, and, to better the jest, Gardarsson showed up for the first rehearsal. He became hooked, not on the acting, but on the social life. “They would have these parties running late into the night all the time, and I would tag along and discover the social animal inside myself,” Gardarsson says. He continued to act in student theater and eventually enrolled in the Iceland Academy of the Arts in Reykjavik, where he formed a theater company with some of his classmates in 2001. Housed in an electrical shed at the end of a port on Vesturgata Street, they dubbed the new company Vesturport.

Upon graduation, Gardarsson became an ensemble member with the City Theatre, which granted Vesturport use of one of its small stages. He began work on his version of Romeo and Juliet, drawing upon his gymnastic training. Taking the part of both director and Romeo, he conceived of a high-flying, high-energy production, in which Shakespeare’s lovers could leap and soar across the stage with the aid of trapezes, catwalks, and circus hoops. Romeo and Juliet’s gravity-defying staging became a trademark of Vesturport’s aesthetic. Reflecting on the founding of the company, Gardarsson recalls that he and his co-founders were “part of a movement that thought theater was boring and monotone and didn’t take any risks or play with the form.” His solution was typically action-based. “Rather than keep whining about it,” he describes, “we decided to have something on the side we could play around with. So Vesturport was thought of as an alternative place to work. If you had any ideas, you could explore them with your friends in a safe environment. We never had a manifesto other than trying to be true to our own dreams. I try to be versatile and try new things. Like doing a family production of Robin Hood.”

Jordan Dean and Christina Bennett Lind in The Heart of Robin Hood.

Which brings us back to the shark. Gardarsson was initially hesitant to direct a family show, but he was convinced by David Farr’s adaptation, which returns the hero to his pre-Tudor roots as a thuggish forester who robs, and sometimes kills, his victims with no thought of gifting the spoils to the less fortunate. In Farr’s redramatization of the tale, it is Marion who teaches Robin Hood to be a better man—after she disguises herself as a boy to join the Merry Men and proves her mettle in several swordfights. The romance, darkness, and female hero at the center of the story all drew Gardarsson to the adaptation.

The script already included some fantastical, action-movie effects, but Gardarsson has added more. With the stage transformed into a giant greensward, Gardarsson’s Sherwood Forest reflects the dangerous life of an outlaw. Actors crash into the action at a break-neck pace by sliding down a ramp nearly forty-five feet high, weapons in hand and ready for a fight against the evil agents of King John. Large branches, from which actors leap and musicians hide, shoot out from the top of the ramp and canopy the theater, and a pool of water invites splashing.

This dynamic Sherwood illustrates Gardarsson’s approach to the shows he directs. “A theater production that surprises you,” says the director, “will live with you for a long time.” In returning the story to its darker roots and allowing the emotional arc of the characters to play out against an extreme physical world, Gisli Gardarsson has located the heart of Robin Hood—and his continued allure—in the exhilaration of pure theater.

Alexandra Juckno is a second-year dramaturgy student at the A.R.T./Moscow Art Theater School Institute for Advanced Theater Training at Harvard University.

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