Winter Travels in Samiland

Macbeth on Ice
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
Feb. 24 2004 4:06 PM

Winter Travels in Samiland

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Today's slide show: Macbeth on Ice

The main entrance to the Ice Hotel
The main entrance to the Ice Hotel

Even the approach to the Ice Globe Theatre is magical. A path lit by candles flickering against the starry night leads across the snow to the banks of the frozen Torne River—and there it sits, a perfect replica, in snow and ice, of Shakespeare's Globe. With flaming torches on either side of the door and a brazier burning in front, along with electric searchlights shooting into the sky, the building has the appearance of a space station from the Renaissance. The production tonight was Macbeth, the temperature was minus 25 centigrade, and it was snowing lightly.

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At the entrance to the Ice Globe, we were handed silvery quilted ponchos with fur-trimmed hoods. Most of the audience were guests of the Ice Hotel right next door and were already warmly clad in the snowsuits, hats, and shoes that the management provides. Moving clumsily, we stumbled upstairs into what at first seemed to be a James Turrell installation. The tall, curved walls of packed snow were bathed in pale blue light, and the stage, with its backdrop of crackled ice blocks, glittered with the same cool blue. Snow drifted down through the open roof onto our heads. Our tiered seats were packed snow; we each had a small polystyrene square to sit on. Behind and above us, more theater-goers crowded into snow-boxes. Their silver ponchos made them look like wraiths. Murmurs of awe and delight (teeth-chattering would come later) rumbled from within the hoods. We'd entered an enchanted space, and in such a setting found it easy to be transported to Shakespeare's barbaric, familiar world of ambition and madness.

Several years ago, Rolf Degerlund, the director of the Ice Globe Theatre, had a vision. Returning to Sweden from London and a visit to the newly restored Globe, he thought, why not recreate the theater in snow and ice? "What I imagined was actors playing Hamlet with clouds of frost coming from their mouths," he told me.

A year later he was putting on Hamlet—but not in Swedish. He'd asked the National Sami Theater of Norway, Beaivváš, to direct and act it. This year, he'd called on the Swedish Sámi Teáter, based in Kiruna, to produce Macbeth. The actors would come, as they had before, from all parts of Samiland; the only criteria was that they be able to speak Sami.

The blue light shifted to white as the witches appeared in stiff skirts of felt woven to resemble frost rime or spider webs. Terrifying. It didn't matter that the well-known words were absent; the fact that the witches spoke another tongue heightened their strangeness. That and the sight of vapor issuing from their mouths as they hissed. This was a shortened version of the play: two acts of about half an hour each with a 20-minute intermission to warm up.

By the end of Part 1, my toes and fingers were numb, but I was riveted. Somehow this production was the most Shakespearean of any Macbeth I'd ever seen. The bitter cold had something to do with it. England was a snowier country in the 1600s. Flaming torches and thick furs would have been common onstage and off.

The male actors in their rough but cunningly designed garments of fur and skin, with bone and iron ornaments, moved around the stage with heavy grace, while Lady Macbeth, a sexy beast of a woman with a long mass of dark curls, wore a red leather bodice in the first act. The icy steam coming from her red lips seemed, again, perfectly and scarily appropriate.

The Absolut Ice Bar
The Absolut Ice Bar

During intermission everyone rushed awkwardly for the Absolut Ice Bar in the Ice Hotel for either a hot drink from a paper cup or one of the bar's vodka drinks in a heavy glass made of ice. The temperature in the coldly luxurious bar was, like the rest of the Ice Hotel, higher than outside, since snow insulates, but minus 5 is still nippy. Having once spent a night in the hotel, I didn't envy the guests their upcoming rest on a bed of ice, albeit ice covered in reindeer skins. Although the hotel does much to make the experience comfortable and claims "some people say it's the best sleep they've ever had," I've never met any of those people. My companion two years ago writhed in a thermal sleeping bag, muttering something about "entombment" through puffs of frost. To go to the toilet in a heated room down an icy corridor meant pulling on clothes and boots. In the morning we were waked at 7 a.m. and urged out into minus 35 degree weather to take a sauna and have breakfast in another building across the road. You don't sleep in with room service here, however much you pay (and it's expensive).

The Ice Hotel is best viewed as a fabulous art project, a creative, ever-changing ice folly that falls into the must-be-seen-to-be-believed category. Each year architect Åke Larsson designs a series of tunnels separated into plain rooms and suites, and art designer Arne Bergh invites artists from many countries to take up chisels to create an ambiance within the confines of the frozen material. Many sculptors, as well as musicians, painters, graffiti artists, and even a puppeteer have risen to the challenge and produced atmospheric and inventive spaces. (You can take a look at them during daytime hours, even if you're not a guest, by paying a small fee at reception.)

Back in the blue-glazed icy theater for Part 2, the familiar speeches ("Life's but a walking shadow," and "Out, damned spot!") took on new life in Sami. The story evolved with sinister simplicity, and Lady Macbeth's distress was strangely heart-breaking, as was Macbeth's certainty that Birnam Wood would never come to Dunsinane.

Rolf Degerlund's idea of doing the play in Sami was not only dramatically brilliant, it also had political ramifications. Sami, a Finno-Ugric language, had almost faded away this century, like Welsh and Gaelic. But while a more activist generation has reclaimed at least two of the main dialects, North Sami and Lule Sami, for themselves and their children, it has little status within Swedish society and is hardly known to foreigners. By making it the language of these performances, Degerlund's intent, he told me, was to give the Sami a larger audience, to allow a space for them to be seen and their language heard.

This appreciative audience clapped its thick gloves hard, and then we handed in our silver ponchos and slipped into the night. Personally, I was very thankful that I was headed back to Kiruna and into my nice warm bed at the cozy Vinterpalaset Hotel.

Barbara Sjoholm is the editor of Steady As She Goes: Women's Adventures at Sea, and author of the forthcoming travel-history narrative The Pirate Queen: In Search of Grace O'Malley and Other Legendary Women of the Sea. She has been visiting Scandinavia since the 1970s.

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