A 2.5-hour-long stage adaptation of a novel about Iceland may seem an unusual choice for the Carleton Players to perform. Independent People, however, pulls it off. Eva Barr and John Musial, guest directors from Chicago, adapted it from Halldoor Laxness’s novel of the same name, which is considered to be the quintessential novel of Iceland. The Carleton Players preserved that Icelandness that makes Laxness’s novel so distinctive. Independent People sweeps you away to the alien landscape of Iceland and steeps you in it.
The play opens with dry ice fog and the soft lowing of sheep in the background. Sheep turn out to be an omnipresent force in the play, to such an extent that the local priest complains, “Sheep have been a greater plague to this country than tapeworm and foxes together. People have neglected their creator to chase sheep all over this nation.” Independent People is the tale of one such sheepherding family that is unhappy in true Tolstoy fashion.
The play’s narrator, Nonni, recalls his boyhood living on an isolated croft with his fiercely stubborn father, Bjartur of Summerhouses. Rumor has it that Bjartur’s croft is cursed by the spirit of a madwoman, Gunvor, who is buried there. Because of her malevolence, nobody who lives at Summerhouses can be successful. Bjartur remains defiant of her even as it seems that the curse is coming true. Nothing goes well for the Summerhouses family. Together they struggle against blizzards, sick animals, poverty and hunger just to survive. Meanwhile, the wave of socialism sweeping the island only inspires Bjartur’s contempt. His insistence never to rely on the help of others nearly drives the family into the ground.
Nonni is a strange child who believes in fairies, while his two brothers resent Bjartur’s iron heel. Their grandmother spins and mutters in the background. Finally, there is Asta Solilja, neglected daughter of Bjartur’s first wife, in love with poetry and the tales of Snow White.
Bleak, majestic, and full of sheep is the best way to describe the Iceland of Independent People. Scenes are punctuated by Bjartur herding his sheep (played by Carleton students) through his croft. A Greek chorus of Icelandic farmers ruminates about sheep diseases, headless puppies, and the nature of the soul. Barr and Musial made the creative decision to use shadow puppets to generate the backdrops for the sets. Carleton students constructed the puppets in an art workshop last winter. They projected recordings of the puppets onto a scrim at the back of the stage. The shadow plays reinforce the feeling that Iceland is a twilit, dreamlike world so far north that the sun never gets far above the horizon. The borders between the world of reality and the world of Gunvor, or Nonni’s talking pots and pans, blurs here.
Ultimately, Independent People reflects something indomitable about the Icelandic spirit. When it seems that Gunvor has caused his entire flock of sheep to kill themselves against the barn’s walls, Bjartur remains defiant. “You may throw the mountain on top of me, I will never give you a stone.”