SKE reviews "Stones in His Pockets" starring Hilmir Snær and Stefán Karl


Yesterday, SKE visited Iceland's National Theater (Þjóðleikhúsið) to watch a performance of "Stones in His Pockets" starring actors Stefán Karl and Hilmir Snær.



Yesterday, in the National Theater's main hall, the seated guests of the nosebleed section rose to their feet, one by one, as two tardy cousins sidestepped their way awkwardly across the narrow row, resembling, in all likelihood, a pair of inebriated penguins – trying not to fall over. Ensconcing themselves in their seats, the two  men looked out over the auditorium, and admired the fullness of the hall:

          “Sold out. Sold out. Sold out,” the younger cousin commented, while scrolling through the theater's website on his phone so as to provide further proof of the play's popularity.


          The evening's performance, that of the Northern Irish play Stones in His Pockets, written by playwright Marie Jones, marked the commencement of a new season for the two Drama Queens, which was what the cousins called themselves as collaborative patrons of the theater: two young men who weren't above exploiting their tepid enthusiasm for drama – to obscure their questionable relationship to liquor; prior to their arrival, they had sat at a nearby restaurant, and quickly disposed of two cocktails and a beer, rationalizing their swift quaffs with reference to the relative inexpensiveness of the drinks.

          “3,000 króna for four mini cocktails is a bargain,” one of them had previously declared, before inhaling the potent liquid jubilantly through his straw.

          As the curtain fell, one of the men (the undersigned) set his phone to “silent” and raised the volume of his (sometimes eloquent) inner monologue, endeavoring to compensate for his regrettably limited experience in the theater with an uncanny ability to bullshit. 

          “The set was minimalistic,” he thought, observing the stage: A large film reel stretched across its back wall revealing a blue sky and a vague mist of clouds, beneath which, a long row of shoes. Two black storage boxes (of different sizes, and one of them later serving as a coffin) sulked in the middle of the stage: atop the smaller one, the actor Stefán Karl, and standing in the middle of the stage, attempting to bamboozle an extra slice of meringue cake from the hands of an invisible server, Hilmir Snær.

          Over the next three hours, the story unfolded, with the two actors dividing the fifteen roles of the play between themselves in a democratic and expert fashion. 


          Later, when asked by a friend to summarize the play, he would condense its plot into the following words:

          "Two extras, Jake (played by Stefán Karl) and Charlie (Hilmir Snær), are employed on a film set in Ireland when they make each others' acquaintance: Charlie Conlon is a seemingly lighthearted, thirty-something bachelor who, having newly run a video rental store into the ground, dreams of success in the movie business (he's written a screenplay). His new acquaintance, Jake Quinn, is a handsome and somewhat earnest man of a similar age, who has recently returned to Ireland following a spell in America.

          Early on, the two men fawn over the beauty and celebrity of the film's leading actress, Caroline Giovanni (played by Hilmir), and take orders from the film's imperious assistant director, Simon, and his young, ditzy assistant, Aisling, who has secured an influential position on the set through apparent cronyism.

          During a night out at a local tavern, Caroline Giovanni seduces Jake as his companion looks on in vocal disbelief – but the thrill is short-lived; Caroline's motives are purely professional (she is exploiting Jake's Irishness to better understand her own role in the film). As tensions between Jake and the film crew rise to a dramatic crescendo, a troubled young addict – Sean Harkin, a friend of Jake – commits suicide by filling his pockets with stones and wading into a neighboring lake. Later, the audience learns that it was the young addict's rude encounter with Caroline Giovanni that propelled him over the edge. During the subsequent funeral arrangements – and the funeral itself – the film's “higher ups” (Caroline; Clem Curtis, the film's director; Simon; Aisling, etc.) are exposed as a pack of self-absorbed opportunists who are out of touch with the lives of the people they are seeking to portray.


          After the play's conclusion, and following a season of heartfelt applause, the two cousins parted ways: the younger of the two continuing his debauchery at October Fest, as the older (the undersigned) found himself propped upright in bed, quite drunk, as he jotted down his addled thoughts on the performance onto the digital notepad that was resting upon his lap:

          "The play is a satire on celebrity and art in the context of modernity, commercialism and vanity (a decidedly lethal trifecta); art, if it lives up to its ideal as an ennobling pursuit, should serve to sensitize its students and practitioners to the manifold nature of human experience, and open their hearts to the subtle tragedies of human existence, all of which is patently not the case with the 'artists' in the play. These 'artists,' i.e. the actress, the director, the assistant director, etc., are producing a film that is, by all accounts, egregious (Caroline Giovanni's attempts at producing a believable Irish accent are laughable, and most of the film's scenes strike the native Irish extras as improbable), while also demonstrating an habitual lack of empathy for anyone who isn't useful.

          The two actors, Hilmir Snær and Stefán Karl, perform their various roles with seasoned panache, shuffling between characters effortlessly. In retrospect, any criticism that one might have leveled at the play (e.g. that at times the play felt overly long, or that the character Aisling gradually becomes annoying) is, perhaps, to be chalked up to a too hasty consumption of alcohol and the unfortunate distance between oneself and the stage (the nosebleeds are particularly unfavorable given the intimate nature of the play).

          In the end, the set design provided an insightful commentary into the central concept of the play: 

          1. The row of empty shoes – symbolizing the theater's power to allow the audience (and the actors) to briefly inhabit the lives of other people so as to better understand their own. 

          2. The film reel – suspended above the stage, representing the elevation of the human spirit through art, and the power of theater, and art in general, to expand one's horizons. 

          3. The black storage box as a coffin – representing the way that art, good art, brings us into the present moment, persuading us to "stay woke," (in the modern idiom) so that when faced with the prospect of inevitable death – one can die knowing that one has lived, and lived well."

          In the end, Jake and Charlie decide that their story, within the story (the film), is worthy of the stage.

          They're absolutely right.

Words: RTH