Anneli Saro[1]

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Sofi Oksanen’s When the Doves Disappeared. Director Raila Leppäkoski; composer Maija Kaunismaa; set and costume designer Karmo Mende; drawings, photos and videos Mikko Ijäs. Musicians Maija Kaunismaa, Sara Puljula, Tommi Asplund, Juha Kuoppala, Zarkus Poussa. Premiere on the main stage of the Finnish National Theatre 27, Nov. 2013.

The Finnish-Estonian writer Sofi Oksanen is such a colorful person that almost everybody in Finland and Estonia knows of her, and both her personality and works have deservedly caused quite controversial reactions. Currently, one can notice a certain tiredness towards Oksanen, which is partly an outcome of her subtle and clever PR campaigns. The biggest success, and also the most extensive PR campaign, took place in connection with her novel Purge (2008)—whose publishing rights have been sold to 43 countries[2]–which was first written as a play (2007) and which became both film and opera versions in 2012. Oksanen has written altogether three plays and all of them received their first nights in the Finnish National Theatre‒Purge, Stories from the Kitchen (2011), and When the Doves Disappeared (Kun kyyhkyset katosivat, 2013). While the novel Purge was developed out of the play, the play and production of The Doves are based on the novel of the same name published a year earlier. In both cases, novels outshine their drama versions.

The many layers of stage narration: the Estonian guerrilla (Janne Hyytiänienen, left) pays a visit to Juudit (Matleena Kuusniemi); simultaneously in the background, Edgar (Timo Tuominen) is bysy falsifying history. Photo by Stefan Bremer
The many layers of stage narration: the Estonian guerrilla (Janne Hyytiänienen, left) pays a visit to Juudit (Matleena Kuusniemi); simultaneously in the background, Edgar (Timo Tuominen) is bysy falsifying history. Photo by Stefan Bremer

I read the novel a year ago, first with difficulties, later with excitement and a thrill. Oksanen is a master in setting up intrigue and building subtle psychological portraits of characters that immerse readers in the fiction. Stage productions and films based on prose should inevitably narrow down their scope because they possess different tools of expression and have a more limited volume. Nevertheless, in these cases a question is raised: what kind of relationships evolve between multimedia art works and their literary prototype, and whether the former can have independent artistic value.

In the play, Oksanen presents all events of the novel in chronological order, thus making it easier to follow the plot or narrative of the production. In addition, in the theatre, all characters are individualized by the actors and their identities are all the more coherent because of that: the authors of the production cannot make spectators and characters play hide and seek with each other, as happens when one is reading the novel and the linear storyline unfolds quite easily.

In spite of that, director Raila Leppäkoski’s interpretation comes as a surprise. The first act, which depicts events of the Second World War in Estonia, was reminiscent of agitprop theatre, and the second, which takes place already in the the Soviet-occupied Estonia of the 1940s and 1960s, of a tragedy of fate. Leppäkoski is a quite well-known director who has been Professor of Stage Directing (1989-1995) and Professor of Acting (1997-2002) at the Theatre Academy in Helsinki. The adjective bold is often used in connection with her and this is also an appropriate word for describing The Doves, a subtle collage of three independent art forms: text and acting, music, set design and photo images-video.

Her best friend (Pirjo Määttä, right) encourages Juudit (Matleena Kuusniemi) to enjoy a drink while the German occupation lasts. Photo by Stefan Bremer
Her best friend (Pirjo Määttä, right) encourages Juudit (Matleena Kuusniemi) to enjoy a drink while the German occupation lasts. Photo by Stefan Bremer

Stereotypes, black and white contrasts and expressivity, all typical characteristics of agitprop theatre, have already been applied in both the casting and the acting. Honest and straight Roland (Janne Hyytiäinen) and his fiancée Rosalie (Sari Puumalainen) are dark-haired, short and plump, just as one might expect country people to look and act. In opposition, the city people, Edgar (Timo Tuominen) and Juudit (Matleena Kuusniemi), blond and lanky, represent easily malleable persons, collaborators. The roles are also clearly shaped by the intention to represent all diverse events of the Second World War, interventions of Soviet and German armies in Estonia and their influences on the fates of the main characters, and by a dominating musical score. Since the author and the director have found it important to depict both individual destinies and the political history of the country, characters are obliged to present a lot of textual information that at times falls on the spectators like an avalanche. Fortunately, the text is supported by the expressive drawings of Mikko Ijäs on an upper screen, although it tends to compete with the actors for the spectators’ attention. (I can only imagine how confused a person could be who does not understand Finnish and tries to read the English or Estonian surtitles on a different screen at the same time.) Nevertheless, the picture language is informative enough on its own right, and even more so in accordance with text.

Maija Kaunismaa has composed original music for The Doves, and it is played and sung on the stage by a quintet (violin, piano, synthesiser, drums and contrabass). The continuous music track is beautiful, even sometimes too illustrative, but always omnipresent and strongly colouring the text and the playing of the roles by the actors. One could even state that the dramatic music acquired symphonic dimensions subordinating the other elements of the performance, and leading both narrative and psychological plot. In this case, the actors’ shouting in the first act of the performance could also be explained by the high volume of the music. Of course, Finnish actors often tend to use more expressive stage expressions than I am used to, but on the opening night of the production it seemed also to disturb other audience members: the shouting was not psychologically or situationally motivated. Part of the problem might also be explained by the headsets, which, in addition, flattened all the voices.

Under the background drawings by Mikko Ijäs, the German officer (Antti Luusuaniemi) meets the Estonian Juudit (Matleena Kuusniemi). Photo by Stefan Bremer
Under the background drawings by Mikko Ijäs, the German officer (Antti Luusuaniemi) meets the Estonian Juudit (Matleena Kuusniemi). Photo by Stefan Bremer

The set design by Karmo Mende presents a figural composition of grey concrete columns that can be used to mark the corners of a room, or as watchtowers or trenches—to depict war, aggression and at the same time the search for sanctuary. For the second act, there are only frames, carcasses left, so that everything would be transparent in the Soviet society. Significant changes have also taken place in the characters. Honest Estonian man Roland, who shouted constantly and hysterically during the war, falls completely silent and this is an entirely logical strategy for survival. Contrary to him, Juudit, who offered the most possibilities for identification and understanding during the first act, has become an alcoholic and hysteric. These two now represent the Estonians who could not or did not want either to adjust to the new situation or to collaborate with the Soviet regime.

The most stage time and acting possibilities are offered to Edgar, super-adapter, chameleon, master of impressive falsifications and lies, who rises to power during every new government. In the second act, drawings on the screen are replaced with photos taken and “corrected” by the informer, Edgar. Of course, in the era of photoshop, correction or falsification of photos is a more comprehensible activity than the falsification of documents that made the main character of the novel so successful. Timo Tuominen, who has mostly played simple and honest guys, presents Edgar with clear estrangement, his re-embodiments and lies tend to be clumsy and unbelievable. This kind of “oily” person would earn no trust outside the world of the stage. The main source of tension in the novel is the cat-and-mouse game of life and death between Roland and Edgar. In the production, no secrets are withheld from the spectators and Roland is out of the game from the beginning of the second act. When reading the novel, it is possible to understand both Rolands (who surrender) and Edgars (who collaborate), because on the thin line between hiding and exposing also comes to the fore their ambivalent psychological-ideological inner lives.

Leppäkoski’s production is clearly de-psychologized: one can discern nothing deeper than the bare surface of life. The Doves in the Finnish National Theatre is a tragedy of fate, which follows a maze of destiny / plot wherein the cornered antihero ruthlessly defeats all his opponents and Athena, goddess of justice is watching without wincing. And the spectator can only cry for the unjustly punished characters, if s/he can imagine their situation vividly enough, of course.

Edgar (Timo Tuominen, right) shakes off Roland's (Janne Hyytiäinen) accusations. Photo by Stefan Bremer
Edgar (Timo Tuominen, right) shakes off Roland’s (Janne Hyytiäinen) accusations. Photo by Stefan Bremer

In the second act, the musicians leave the stage one after the other, as in the Symphony of Farewell, by Haydn, but they return for the endgame, apotheosis. At the same time, when Edgar literally washes his hands off in the well and urinates into the water to finally fly over the clouds, out of reach of human power, a beautiful soprano sings: “I love you, life!” This was the end of the story of an evil trickster, who used many people as marionettes, being himself at the same time a marionette in somebody else’s hands. A story of a trickster, who had only one justification for his being‒thirst for life.


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[1] Anneli Saro is Professor of Theatre Research at the University of Tartu in Estonia, and Lecturer of Estonian Culture of the University of Helsinki, Finland. She is also convener of the Theatrical Event working group and Editor-in-Chief of the Nordic Theatre Studies. Her articles dealing with performance analysis, Estonian theatre history and systems. She belongs to the executive committee of the International Federation for Theatre Research and is a member of the International Association of Theatre Critics.

[2] http://www.sofioksanen.com/books/purge/

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Sofi Oksanen’s Doves Take a Surprising Twist