A chance encounter at Nuuk airport was the inspiration for a pioneering collaboration that brought Shakespeare to Greenland via its own National Theatre.
The late Jennie Buckman, artistic director of Giants Theatre, was on holiday in Greenland to see the Northern Lights at the recommendation of Birgitte Nystrom, a Danish actor and director based in London.
“On the way back, the weather was bad and their flight was delayed,” says Nystrom. “At the airport there was a troupe from the National Theatre of Greenland who were on tour. Jennie got talking to them and asked whether they had done any Shakespeare. They said they hadn’t. She said she’d love to do some Shakespeare with them as it was a passion of hers.”
On Buckman’s return she asked Nystrom if she would like to be involved as a collaborative partner. Nystrom said yes – born in Greenland, the actor, writer and director was raised in Greenland and then Denmark. Taking the initiative she phoned Susanne Andreasen, head of the National Theatre of Greenland in Nuuk, who immediately got on board with the project. And so began the rapid journey to staging the country’s first full-length Shakespeare in Greenlandic.
“At first, we thought of The Tempest as an obvious choice,” says Nystrom. “At the theatre they suggested otherwise, wishing to escape from its colonial connotations. Varste Mathæussen, then principal of the National’s Theatre School, suggested A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It proved the perfect choice.”
Buckman and Nystrom flew to Nuuk for a two-week workshop in January 2018, in the depth of the Arctic winter darkness. They worked with a cast of nine, including four graduating students in the younger roles, operating in Greenlandic and English – the recognised languages at the National’s Theatre School. Most Greenlanders speak Danish, but to create an equal footing between them and the Danes, English was adopted as the common language.
The plan was to co-direct but after Buckman became too ill (she died last year), Nystrom continued with her blessing. She developed the concept alongside the UK’s Martin Coles as movement director. Siri Paulsen was assistant director, fluent in Greenlandic, Danish and English.
Makka Kleist, one of Greenland’s leading actors and founder of the Theatre School, wrote the adaptation, now titled Aasarisseruttoraa (‘Midsummer’). Apart from the translation into Greenlandic, elements such as Camilla Nielsen’s costumes also became important.
“For instance, the fairies were ‘Innersuit’ spirits in white-hooded parkas,” says Nystrom, “Pukki (Puck), when he needed to, put on black raven feathers, Titania’s lullaby became throat-singing, Bottom was turned into an Arctic hare, not a donkey. Titania and Oberon arrived in pick-up trucks and had their argument outdoors.”
Getting the voice of such a small nation heard on the world stage is a challenge, but Nystrom has plans to bring theatrical elements of Greenland to London, such as Mathæussen’s mask workshops and performances, and the possibility of a collaboration with Kleist.
“Makka’s monologue The View was staged at the Nuuk Nordic Culture Festival in 2019, where an older woman tells the story of her family being moved from a remote village to a big apartment development in the capital. It played in Greenlandic and in English. It could be staged here,” says Nystrom. It would also be exciting to build on what happened at the National Theatre with Aasarisseruttoraa and bring those Greenlandic, Danish and English elements together again.”