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  • Petar Brkovic

Joy and laughter with deadpan circus

Gothenburg Fringe 2022 in review - The Nordic Council spoke to Petar Brkovic about their show Three Men from the North

I remember standing curiously, on the preview day of Gothenburg Fringe, behind the seating audience when these three guys came in front of us, with their dead serious faces and bodies frozen. They stared at us, and we stared at them. This was a point where I already understood that the intrigue is too high, and it needs to be solved with my witnessing of the performance.

And sure, I witnessed.

Three Men from the North, Bjarni Àrnason (Iceland man), Jakob Jacobsson (Sweden man) and Merri Heikkilä (Finland man) came to show what is typically northern, but also universal, as they revealed.

I talked to them, to find out more about the performance which left me, and probably the whole audience that came to Frölunda Kulturhus, speechless, but so humorously satisfied.

Who are the Three Men from the North? What do they do when they're not juggling, playing the harmonica, and putting IKEA pieces together?

I think a very realistic answer is that we spend a lot of our time practising. I think that's a large part of what we do. And I think that's a large part of both the material but also who we are, as people and artists. We did meet in a circus school where we train and practice every single day. And I think that's a lot of how the material is made is - through repetition.

A lot of the jokes that we've created that you've seen on stage are made, not because we sat around a table and discuss things, but because we did things enough times, that things developed kind of organically. We make a mistake, and then something happens and that becomes material.

I realised mistakes were part of the show, but how do you see those mistakes?

Merri: Early on we tried to acknowledge the fact that mistakes can happen. And it did start becoming part of the show kind of the more we develop the material, we realise that there is also a lot of potential in the mistakes in the style. We work with that. Then in a lot of cases, you could then create new things out of the mistakes. Which is very interesting.

Jakob: I think that is also an important part of the material, that it makes it relatable to the audience. I think there's a lot of perfectionism in circus and physical performing arts, a trick has to go right, everything has to work with performance, it has to be pristine. I love when the audience can look at something we do and realise that something didn't go exactly according to plan. But that we found a way out of it, that we accept what happens and we move with it. And I think that's something that everyone has to go through in life, a lot of times, and for me, that makes the material fun to play. Because if the audience can connect to it, I feel like we're giving something more back than if we just show a really impressive trick.

Interesting. Thank you. As I understand, Gothenburg Fringe was your first showing of the performance in Sweden. How did you like it here? How is it different than other Fringes? And yeah, what makes it unique?

Bjarni: The Swedish audience is funny. It was quiet at first, like performing at school again. And then they really cheered in the end. At first, I thought, are they not entertained? Do they not like the show? And then they give a standing ovation.

Jakob: The show lives a lot with the audience as well. So like the fact of how reactive the audience is, or how many people are in the audience, which then makes them more comfortable reacting out loud, affects a lot to the rhythm of the show as well. Because we play with it.

And how did you like it here, in Gothenburg?

It's been a really good time. The organisation was, of course, great. Like, I feel like we've been well taken care of by the festival. When Chris and Hanna saw us in Reykjavik last year, they decided, this is gonna happen, they’ll make it happen, no matter the cost. This kind of feeling as an artist is incredibly heart-warming to hear.

The Nordic Council journey, captured by Uros Hocevar / kolektiff for Gothenburg Fringe Festival

And it was also a cool venue. I do know that one of the Fringe people said that this was the best show they've seen at the Fringe.

Merri: They probably didn't see all of them.

I think the person was struck by its Nordicness.

Jakob: I had two family friends coming here from far north. They don't see a lot of circus and it wasn't about the tricks we did. It wasn't about the style of the performance, whether it's theatre, dance, music or circus, but they felt very seen by the material, for good and bad, it was their exact words. It hit them a bit too close to home.

I think this is also something we talked a lot about with audiences. When we talk about the north and Three Men in the North that it isn't just about people from Iceland, Sweden and Finland it's also that northernness is something that is regional as well. Every country we've been to has a sense of northerners, whether it's geographical or otherwise, but within every country, there are these habits that are universal. We've played in Italy and people said, oh, yes, people from Friuli, they're exactly like this! Every country has their own sense of otherness within the own country. And whether it's geographical or otherwise is not necessarily what we're trying to point out. We're not trying to define it, but rather invite a discussion of what are the like the otherness within your own country. And how do you find those?

You kind of touched on that, but like, what is the performance for you? So you said, of course, northernness. And these are the elements that everyone talks about when we talk about the performance?

I think a lot of the foundation for the material was that we realised there are things from home that we don't have with us when we're not there, there are things that we are used to that we come from, that sets us apart. And for me, it's more of a way to reconnect to this. I was super content to learn everything about every culture I lived in, in France, Russia, England, and the Netherlands, but you do realise you miss certain things. There are things that define you when you grow up. You can try to escape it if you want, but I don't think it's fully possible. At a certain point, you should just embrace it, enjoy it, live with it and share it with other people. For me, this show is exactly that, everywhere I get to take a piece of me and my country and the North is with me and I share that with other people and therefore also give it back to myself and connect to them. I think it's keeping me from being homesick as well.

I think it started from feeling the connection between other Nordic people from other Nordic countries, that there was something connecting, and for me, a big part of this show is also the comedy, the humour and how we found like a similar level of humour between us. And personally, I don't work as much with humour in the other shows that I do with different groups, it has been very enjoyable. It is great to see and explore, what actually makes it funny for the audience? And how far can you push that line? So that's, for me a very big thing.

What I'm most happy with is that it is our show, we've found it together with help of colleagues and friends and how it came together and what it is. How it's always the same, but never the same. Which is the beauty of it.

What role do things like the music and monologue play in the performance? Could you point out one thing that you really wanted to have in there? Whatever you feel like about this sensor, I mean, it can be discussed more broadly, but because we have these IKEA things, right, the music plays, but they're in there and then the smog, Finland. Yeah.

For me, the music is definitely one of the cornerstones of the performance. Not just because we agreed from a really early point in the creation that the music shouldn't be just the backing track, the music should be as actively present on stage. So this is why we have the intro song in the very beginning and we have a backing track for one moment where we all three are active. The choice of music that people who know a thing or two about Swedish folk music or Icelandic old traditional songs. All these things are for me personally incredibly important because they are exactly the same and they are things we take with us that. I think the key is if you want to make a show and you claim that it's three men from the north, I feel like it needs to represent more than just us three specifically.

The monologue we did, I did not write it. I found it in a Finnish newspaper originally and for a while like when I found it funny, but also not knowing for a while what I wanted to do something with it. Then when we started creating the show, I brought it in and we tried a lot of different ways of like creating material through the text and ended up then with this version. The further we got with the show it also felt more and more that the scene brings all the scenes together and kind of explained it in a good way. This was really nice to find because working with monologues and working with text can sometimes be risky.

What would happen to a person expressing emotion in Finland or in the Nordics?

It depends on the emotion but I think there's like a general deprivation. If you sit with this particular circle of friends and you need to get something off your chest, I feel like the most immediate reaction would just be a deafening silence because people don't know how to support someone else's emotional outlets. I do think that there is also a process going on in the north right now, like younger people trying to get out of the stigma of Finland man and not showing emotion.:

They say Finns, or people from northern countries, that they are the happiest in the world. How do you put that into that picture?

Merri: Yeah, it is always a weird thing to hear. As a Finnish person who has lived there, most of his life, the society and infrastructure works there really well. And in that sense, it is a great place to live. But this factors of like, handling your emotions, and the mental side of it can still be really rough. So that makes it a bit funny to hear the statistics but at the same time, I can understand it because it is still a good place to live.

I think also that the statistics about the happiest people, the metrics you measure. I think there are things that are tangible, there are things you can see in numbers, and that doesn't necessarily reflect how it feels to be there. And I think that's where these things come in. It's also, of course, countries like Finland, Sweden, or Iceland, we have a couple of cities where people live really closely in hubs and then you have enormous vast landscapes of forests or mountains where people live far apart and, and the feeling is very different. How that reflects on happiness doesn't come out in the surveys, they look at, you know, employment rates, they look at national products and stuff like this, but when you're looking at emotional literacy, it is something different.

For someone who's not so familiar with Finnish humour, how would you describe it? I mean, I read the descriptions, I understand it now more after the performance but what makes it different than Swedish and what is actually Icelandic in the performance?

Merri: The humour we present is this collective thing that all three of us find funny together and I think this is why it becomes Three Men from the North and not Three Men from Sweden, Finland... Icelandic humour is sometimes a bit more absurd, and I think there's also a certain amount of like gallows, dark humour that definitely flies around. Key elements are dryness, serenity on some dark elements, without showing emotions.

Okay, how would you describe the performance in a few words? I was thinking about unusually usual...

Extraordinarily ordinary perhaps, haha. People described us as a deadpan Nordic circus. And I always thought that was really really on point.

Okay, that was it from my side. Thank you, guys and good luck!

Thanks to Gothenburg for a great festival.

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