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How do you get up close and personal with a polar bear without disturbing them in their natural habitat? It turns out that the fate of the world’s largest land mammal has been to end up as a grim symbol of the ecocide taking place right now. Having decided that the time has come to move beyond symbols, the Finnish theatre-makers behind Ice Ice Baby are making the most of the dramatic means at their disposal and putting the bears and the people together on stage. This is not a story where humankind is set to come out well.
Something needs to be done, and Ice Ice Baby, a play-slash-road-trip-tale, is here to show us just what that means. This Arctic requiem draws on the creative team’s visit to the Norwegian mountains and Svalbard, the birthplace of the polar bears, Fritz and Knut. TINFO spoke to writer and director Anna Lipponen, who is also one of Jalostamo2’s artistic directors.
You could argue that, across the west at least, the polar bear is widely recognised as a symbol of climate change. In Ice Ice Baby, polar bears Fritz and Knut decide that the time has come for them to take action. Tell me a little bit about them?
Anna Lipponen: Yeah, I mean, the polar bear is certainly quite well established as a symbol of climate change, but if it was up to me, we’d replace it with an obese, fast fashion-wearing, gluttonous meat-eater that drives 100 metres so they can buy the exotic fruit that’s been flown across the world to rot on the supermarket shelf. I get that the polar bear is being held up because you need to be able to evoke some sort of emotional response in people, but the thing is that we’re getting to this point now where we just really need to act and act fast. Can you tell I’m getting all worked up already.
Fritz and Knut act off the back of their intuition, they’re animals after all. They rely on their instincts and take action, because they have to. That’s sort of the starting point for the play really. I felt quite moved recently when I read in the paper about the polar bears that had taken over a village somewhere in Russia because they were struggling for food. The human inhabitants then responded to this by declaring a state of emergency. Emergencies are an interesting concept, of course, because they’re totally man-made. That’s what we’re trying to talk about. It’s important not to lose sight of the fact that polar bears have no natural predators except one another and us human beings with our guns and our climate disasters.
Like when I take out my mobile phone to take a photo, but the battery can’t cope with the cold or there’s no reception.
The way we present Fritz and Knut on stage does give them some human characteristics, but, more than anything, I want to show them as two polar bears that are trying their hardest to survive in this man-made world of oat milk and Rubik’s cubes. I want to show something quintessentially animal on stage, but also to represent the human way of seeing that animal. We do this by framing the story around a road trip; us humans, we travel, and polar bears can cover up to 50 km a day and spend hours swimming from ice floe to ice floe. That’s the link between the two that I’ve decided to explore and so the story takes us from Helsinki, via Norway, to Svalbard, where the pair were born.
You describe the play as an Arctic requiem. That has a real sense of finality about it. Not even oat milk is going to get us out of this one. Who or what is the requiem in remembrance of?
AL: I find the requiem a very interesting concept culturally, right down to the traditional structure of it. As I was writing this play, I spent a long time looking into Mozart’s Requiem and the sort of cultural tradition that it emerged from. I think it’s a really great way of summing up what humanity is all about. I’ve included it as a sort of subtitle, because the play also features Jouko, the last human on earth, and his motorhome.
Motorhomes are another thing that I think really manage to express something very fundamental about the human condition. I found it comforting and heartening somehow to write a story where everything is turned upside down, and it’s the human being that’s coming to the end of their journey, and the polar bears are seen heading back to the lands of their forefathers in Svalbard, returning to their very own paradise.
There is also an allegorical dimension to the play, where a dead polar bear is re-born as a white dog and after the white dog dies it comes back in the form of a white dove. So, to answer your question, this requiem is written in remembrance of all white creatures, whether hairy or feathered, and to some extent of us human beings, as we die of our selfishness and the sheer impossibility of our chosen way of life.
Many species are currently facing extinction, our climate is changing and the natural world is changing with it. We’re approaching the limit of what the earth can take. How do you see the role of human beings in all of this?
AL: I see a shift in the power dynamics; the animals taking back control from the humanimal. When I stop and really thing about what’s going on, I end up with this brittle, powerless feeling. I think, how is it possible for us to be so selfish that our actions are leading to this constant destruction of animal and plant life. How is it possible for us to still be navel-gazing like this?
I would argue that it’s something that’s bigger than all of us. Something extraordinary.
And then you leave Helsinki behind and take yourself off to the Norwegian mountains, and you look around and you’re reminded of just how tiny we really are in the scheme of things. That’s the reason we chose to shoot in the mountains. I have this need to be surrounded by something that is far greater than anything us humans have ever managed to create.
Why do you think you need that? Are we even allowed to want that?
AL: I guess some people turn to religion to experience that sense of grandeur, but what’s sacred for me is running or hiking up a mountain, or in winter skiing up it and then snowboarding down. Being small, being part of nature and putting yourself totally at its mercy. And also being respectful of that fact.
When I’m in the mountains, I always manage to tap into this sense of peace and calm that makes me really happy. It actually makes me laugh sometimes, when I find myself on top of a mountain and suddenly realise how tiny I am. Like when I take out my mobile phone to take a photo, but the battery can’t cope with the cold or there’s no reception. That’s usually the point where I remember to open my eyes and really take in the landscape. And breathe. To take a closer look and to realise that us human beings, we’re like a fart in the Sahara, as the Finns put it, just vanishingly insignificant. All of this existed long before we came along and will hopefully be here long after we’ve gone.
I often wonder whether animals feel the same sort of emotions that we do. Like, do they have special spots that remind them of something meaningful? I’ve watched my own two dogs on our various trips and, I’m sure I’m anthropomorphising wildly here, but I really want to believe that when Lumi, who’s 8 and who’s spent her whole life hillwalking with us, when she gets to the top that it means something to her, that she really gets it. I mean, does the air smell different to her too? Can she make sense of the views? Or does she just experience that moment in some physical, bodily way? We can’t know either way, but it’s clear that something happens to her in those moments. I would argue that it’s something that’s bigger than all of us. Something extraordinary.
We have no polar bears in Finland, but they do have them in Svalbard. In terms of Ice Ice Baby, what were you hoping to find in Norway and in Svalbard?
AL: Nature. That rugged majesty you get in northern Norway. That force that’s much greater than us. Our lighting designer Petri Tuhkanen and I have spent a few weeks in Norway every year for many years now. It’s an important place for us.
This whole thing started off a couple of years ago when Mama Laika, our incredibly ancient motorhome broke down and left us stranded up there. I thought it was apposite with the whole road trip thing to show human beings coming a bit of a cropper when the temperature drops and their battery freezes.
Visiting Svalbard didn’t sit completely easily with me because of the air travel it will involve and issues around tourism as well, but when the opportunity presented itself for July through an artistic residency programme, I just had to go for it. It’s going to be an experience that I think will allow us to generate huge amounts of really unique material for the stage.
The plan is to spend a week shooting up there. But I am nervous. I want to do everything I can to respect the polar bear habitats and make sure that we explore the area without disturbing a single bear. The good thing is that we’re working with professionals we know we can trust. So yes, northern Norway and Svalbard will certainly be very much a presence, both practically and thematically, and will form an important visual dimension for the play as well.
What I want to do is bring a little bit of that gorgeous nature, that sacred beauty and that indescribable feeling with me and put it right there on stage.
Jalostamo2 is a Helsinki-based theatre company. Their earlier artistic project, Narrien laiva (Ship of fools) was a collaboration with the NO99 group from Tallinn. Jalostamo2 is led by co-directors Anna Lipponen, an actor and writer, and lighting designer Petri Tuhkanen.
Jalostamo2 seeks to present artistically uncompromising theatre that remains in constant dialogue with contemporary society. The theatre company sets out to create plays that are not restricted to any one language, format or venue.
Jalostamo2 is one of five theatre companies chosen to take part in Theatre Info Finland’s (TINFO) MOTI project.
Ice Ice Baby opens in Helsinki on 21 November 2019.
(TINFO / Sari Havukainen, 20 May 2019)