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Europaeus. Timo Tuominen, Hanna Rajakangas, Taisto Reimaluoto, Petra Poutanen-Hurme, Esa-Matti Lång, Antti Pääkkönen. Photo: Tuomo Manninen
Volume 2

Transgressions

During the last ten years, the Finnish theatre world has been in the middle of numerous structural and artistic changes. Some trends and characteristic features are fairly clear, but it is still difficult to predict where they will lead.

The Eino Kalima Prize, which is given every fourth year to the best Finnish National Theatre interpretation, was awarded this spring to the theatre director and writer Juha Hurme for his direction of Europaeus. The play, also written by Hurme, portrays D.E.D. Europaeus, a Finnish historical character born in 1820. He was a scholar and a very eccentric person, who did not fit into the time of national awakening with its normative frames. He invented many new Finnish words when literary Finnish was still taking shape; he collected old poems during several hikes around the eastern border of the country; he saw mankind as one instead of divided into national units, and his idea of human being’s origin in Africa gave him a nickname Europaeus-Africanus. Europaeus’s life involves many paradoxes, and the performance exploits them in a warm, hilarious way.

It is easy to find colliding ideas throughout the performance, and they do not only concern the main character. The performance plays with numerous intertextual links on many levels. The “Lapp hut” on stage, made of few crossed poles, may create connotations with folk tradition, although the Sami people live in the north only and Finns did not live in Lapp huts. The costumes refer to normative habits (student’s cap, academic top hat and tails) and ironize national distinctive marks (wrestling shorts in national colors). In both cases the clothing combinations and acting style keep alive the awareness of performing. The production celebrates and ironizes Finnish folk theatre tradition by performing it with funny characters and talented actors (Timo Tuominen, Esa-Matti Long, Antti Pääkkönen, Taisto Reimaluoto). Two singers (Hanna Rajakangas, Petra Poutanen-Hurme) comment on the story in a Brechtian way, although burlesquing even that, most amusingly in the long “comic song before intermission,” which reminds the audience in detail of what it needs to do during the break and warns of the second act: “Though you have so far been quite amused, your laughter will soon fade. The wise men’s steps quicken, when his final rest in the grave comes to mind.” The “serious” act is then presented in the promised mode.

This amusing potpourri extends to the text, which offers the spectators historical characters both in person and through their writing, as parodies and as quotations. The pleasure partly depends on the cultural competence of the spectator. Two national dramatists (who were at the same time in a mental hospital) comment on their life and works, and their dreams on stage do not look less real than how their “life” is depicted. It is possible to see the performance in the continuum of the Finnish popular performance style, as it has recently been developed, e.g. by Kristian Smeds. It is not a surprise that Hurme and Smeds are today cooperating, but it is not clear who has influenced whom. Hurme has mostly worked outside mainstream stages, in amateur theatres, and classical Finnish literature has been dear to him. Smeds has directed classical and other works at different mainstream stages and abroad. Both belong to the middle-aged generation which experienced as youths the rise of physical theatre, and harmonious staging or storytelling is still remote to them. In fact, the name of Hurme’s play, Europaeus, represents the general image well: seemingly “national” performing style has not only local inspirations, and borders are crossed in many ways. Strong stage metaphors—here the lonely way of a creative scientist—and the referents in today’s society are common to both of them.

Hurme, who usually works in fringe theatres, has now conquered the National Theatre, and Smeds will work during the coming five years as the first resident director at the same theatre. The Kalima Fund, named for the long-time general director of the National Theatre and highly appreciated Chekhov expert Eino Kalima, has made the latter contract possible and awarded the former artist. This generation has not lost its radicalism, but the mainstream has captured its creativity.

Europaeus. Photo: Tuomo Manninen.

Europaeus. Photo: Tuomo Manninen.

In the Ceiling the Stars Are Shining tells about the thirteen-year-old Jenna Wilson, who is unpopular in school and whose mother is dying of breast cancer. She decides to kill herself if her mother dies—and it is clear that cancer will finish the mother soon. The performance does not hide the difficulties in the family’s life, and other teenagers add to the story their own action-packed life. The original novel by Johanna Thydell has won a prestigious prize as the best children’s and youth’s book of 2003 in Sweden, and it was made into a popular and highly-praised film, Glowing Stars. The work targets young people, but the theatre performance at Lilla Teatern in Helsinki has no special age restrictions. It is warm but not sentimental, and it does not use indirect expressions. The girl does not commit suicide (which in fact is not rare among young people), but that is not essential in the play. Its message celebrates life, in the way that young people and we all must face it.

The director and dramaturg of the performance Milja Sarkola, who graduated about ten years ago, belongs to the theatre artists who focus their interest on individuals and their social surroundings. She has worked with different groups and was the director of one of Finland’s major theatre groups, Takomo. This performance reminds one of her other interpretations: meditating characters, quick transfers from one sequence to another, and interest in the play’s text and ethical problems. Most actors in the performance have graduated recently and some are still studying at the Theatre Academy; others began their career one or two decades earlier. All of the actors have performed in several groups and forums, including jazz bands, and they have moved between Finnish and Swedish productions. Iida Kuningas, who interprets Jenna and does it with sincere charm, graduated this spring but has already behind her several roles in TV and film, and on different stages. Hanna Raiskinmäki has in less than ten years performed in TV and film productions and appeared in several theatres in Helsinki and other Finnish cities, presenting Milja Sarkola’s play and directing in Takomo.

Lilla Teatern is a separate, originally independent Swedish theatre of the minority language group, now under the umbrella of the largest Finnish theatre, the Helsinki City Theatre. Unlike the Finnish National Theatre, the City Theatre does not invest in permanent actors’ contracts and ensemble, although its older actors have a permanent appointment. In the Ceiling the Stars Are Shining was first performed in Swedish by the same actors, which may have increased the feeling of a joint ensemble, as did the fact that many of its artists had worked together on other stages. Lilla Teatern has a prominent history as an alternative stage to the Swedish national theatre in Helsinki, and as one of the best-known Nordic progressive groups. By performing its most popular plays in Finnish after having first done them in Swedish, it has traditionally broken the Swedish dominant language policy. With this kind of background it is difficult to revolt against the previous generation, and this production does not even seem to try. Instead, it breaks the growing tendency toward a more commercial orientation in its master theatre by basing the performance on the play’s inward prospects only, without, for example, utilizing the characterizations of the film. In the Ceiling the Stars Are Shininghas mainly young actors, but it cannot be seen as a generational production. Its story focuses on teenagers, but its themes are universal.

Kaspar Hauser. Photo: Pate Pesonius.

Kaspar Hauser. Photo: Pate Pesonius.

However, it is possible to find a generational movement at some experimental theatres, as was seen when Kaspar Hauser was staged at the small Theatre Q. The press has named the production after a 1978 revolutionary production a “new Pete Q,” that is, a production which will remain in the national theatre history as an epoch-making event, in the way Pete Q did in its time. According to a review, “This has been waited, this has been wanted, and this is why theatre exists, for God’s sake!” The press and audience may wish to get landmarks in long-term evaluation, and this production fills that need extremely well; it is possible to see highlighted in it some distinctive features of today’s Finnish theatre. The performing group represents the generation of Milja Sarkola and her actors at the Lilla Teatern. The director and dramaturg Akse Pettersson himself estimates that he has done what he used to do, but this time “in new covers.” The “covers” could include the venue, which has given his style more visibility.

According to the Theatre Q, the production shows compassion for those who want to get so many things that it is impossible to have them all. In the world where people create new demands and live off of spectacles, Kaspar Hauser is a revolutionary character who, after having lived his first years alone in a cellar, does not want anything, does not even want to want. He says that his former life in the cellar was better than the new one outside. He disturbs his normative surroundings with his questions about “why.” The performance takes a look at society and our time, but it also specifies that this is especially a question for young adults. The Theatre does not recommend the production to young spectators under the age of fifteen.

In this production Kaspar Hauser becomes everybody and something that no one in the end wants to have in real life, a mirror to all aimless ardor and egotistic behavior. Kaspar Hauser’s death is as performative as everything else. Energetic and nuanced acting, playing with audience and with stage presence or heavy use of videos are usual in today’s theatre, but in this performance all this merges into a whole as if it were a theme of the production. This generation creates a cruel and extremely ridiculous image of (post)modern life, but the irony in the performance distances this blunt conclusion into the target of our assessment – and captivates the audience.

Theatre Q was founded in 1990 and has during two decades chosen actors for its productions mainly from its fifty members. In 2012 the theatre appointed its own ensemble with eight artists, and the performances are mainly produced by that permanent group. Jussi Nikkilä, Lotta Kaihua, and Eero Ritala, who interpret roles in Kaspar Hauser, belong to it. The policy of the Theatre has been to “see theatre as a life-long mystery instead of a working-place,” and the recent production does not differ from that orientation. It has been sold out since its premiere, but the season has now ended and the next production opens in September. The fact that Kaspar Hauser will be seen at the National Theatre’s stage by this group next spring, testifies to the institutional boundaries decreasing: the National Theatre does not protect its particularity by emphasizing its difference from the others, and an experimental group does not lose its character under the national umbrella.

The common denominator of all changes could be the decrease of clear borderlines between institutions, performing styles, or generations, and the change involves both old and young.


Pirkko Koski, Professor emerita, was responsible for the Department of Theatre Research in the Institute of Art Research at the University of Helsinki, and was the director of the Institute of Art Research until the end of 2007. Her research concentrates on performance analysis, historiography, and Finnish theatre and its history. In addition to scholarly articles, she has published several books in these fields. She has also edited several anthologies about Finnish theatre, and volumes of scholarly articles translated into Finnish.


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