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article image'Iceland' thaws out relationships with money and each other Special

By Cate Kustanczy     Mar 5, 2013 in Entertainment
Toronto - 'Iceland' is a Canadian play that premiered last summer to much acclaim. It presents three monologues that examine the banking crisis, revealing our own attitudes to money, opportunity, wealth, and success in the process.
Originally performed at the annual Toronto theater festival SummerWorks in 2012, it received both the Audience Choice and Best New Play awards, as well as rave reviews in the local press, with theatre writer Glenn Sumi declaring playwright Nicolas Billon "a masterful storyteller" and noting how the work is "full of haunting imagery." It's on now through March 24th at Toronto's Factory Theatre.
Named after the country that faced its own financial meltdown in 2008, the work explores the fallout of the banking crisis through a chance encounter between a real estate agent (Kawa Ada), a condo tenant (Claire Calnan), and an escort (Lauren Vandenbrook). The work is part of a triptych of plays -the others being Greenland and Faroe Islands (published together as Fault Lines) -that challenge the audience to weigh the value of human relationships, and the human longing to be a part of a larger, greater idea.
Iceland deepened the collaboration between playwright Nicolas Billon and director Ravi Jain, of Toronto's Why Not Theatre company. The pair had previously worked together to stage Greenland in 2009, as well as the SummerWorks production of Iceland last year. Billon himself has an illustrious history, with two of his plays having been produced at the Stratford Shakespeare Theatre Festival; Billon was, in fact, the first playwright accepted into Stratford’s Birmingham Conservatory for Classical Theatre, and later went on to be part of the inaugural Soulpepper Academy, where he adapted a much-praised version of Chekhov's Three Sisters in 2007. Billon has since made two short films, worked on other adaptations and original pieces, and even found time to take Greenland to the New York City Fringe Festival, where it won an Overall Excellence for Playwrighting award.
The playwright recently emailed thoughts around writing monologues, humanizing the crisis, and the value of not preaching to your audience.
How does the new production of Iceland differ from the one presented at SummerWorks?
The main difference is we have a new actor in the role of Kassandra. Christine Horne got a part in Atom Egoyan's new movie (hurray Christine!) and wasn't able to do the Factory production. We cast the wonderful Lauren Vandenbrook to play Kassandra. It's amazing how different the two performances are, and yet how both actors are right for the part. Otherwise, the show remains faithful to its SummerWorks incarnation. There were a handful of script changes. The director and actors were given more time to explore the play, and that comes out in their performances. As for the design, we tweaked the costumes and lighting; mostly we got to try out ideas that we didn't have the resources for in SummerWorks.
Why monologues?  After our success with  Greenland   director Ravi Jain and I agreed that we wanted ...
Why monologues? "After our success with "Greenland", director Ravi Jain and I agreed that we wanted to continue our exploration of the monologue form, which neither of us had worked with it until then," says Nicolas Billon. "Honestly, it's changed the way I approach theatre. I find writing for the fourth wall more difficult now; I miss the directness of monologues and the way the form creates an instant connection with an audience."
Nicolas Billon
What's the biggest challenge to making a play about finance interesting?
Personally, I find collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) fascinating, and a spectacular example of human folly. However, I don't think many people share my enthusiasm for the intricacies of financial instruments. That's a challenge. One of my touchstones when writing Iceland was Lucy Prebble's Enron. Prebble did an exceptional job of elucidating the Enron scandal without turning her characters into mouthpieces.
You've spoken about wanting to "humanize" the banking crisis without being finger-wagging -- how difficult (or easy) was it to put a human face on this situation?
For me, the key to Iceland was being diligent about two things: first, avoid didacticism at all costs; second, have a character (or two or three) with whom I'd get into a fist-fight. In the first case, I made sure that Iceland be about the effects of the mortgage crisis as opposed to the mortgage crisis per se. Putting aside the complexity of root causes mentioned earlier, as a general rule explication makes for dull drama. Besides, who cares how it happened, technically speaking? People were behind CDOs, not machines. That's like having a conversation about gun control by viewing a documentary on the manufacturing process of firearms. As far as a fist-fight is concerned, I think that Halim and I would likely come to blows; Anna too, I suspect. And yet, I recognize myself in both of them. That's an aspect of Iceland that works best for me: I'm not impervious to any of the characters's arguments.
What does Iceland offer Canadians in terms of illuminating our own situation around finances & money?
Since there was no didactic intention in writing Iceland, that's a tough question to answer. I hope there are arguments in Iceland that an audience will connect with. And whatever conclusions they come to belong to them. A playwright once said – I can't remember who – that a play raises questions, but doesn't answer them. I subscribe to that philosophy. The other day, following a tech dress of Iceland, I was reading the news and came across an article about the Canada-EU trade talks, and the fact they may include weaker bank oversight rules. I couldn't help but ask myself, "Haven't we learned anything from the past?" This is one of the major questions Iceland raises, and I might have skipped the article had I not seen the show earlier that day. Perhaps it's less a question of illuminating and more about making people attuned to certain ideas.
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