Koivu ja Tähti (The Birch and the Star), by Pirkko Saisio. Directed by Laura Jäntti. Scenography by Kati Lukka. Costumes by Tarja Simone. Lighting design by Morten Reinan. Sound design by Raine Ahonen and Esko Mattila. Premiere on the main stage of the Finnish National Theatre, 13 September, 2017.
In 2017, Finland celebrates one hundred years as an independent state. The Finnish National Theatre commissioned a new play from Pirkko Saisio to mark the anniversary. The result is called Koivu ja Tähti (The Birch and the Star).
Even without the springboard of the anniversary, Finnish theatre seems obsessed with its attempts to describe and define our national identity. National identity on stage outnumbers any other topic. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, amidst the European fashion of establishing nationalisms all over the continent, this slogan emerged: ”We are no longer Swedes, we do not want to become Russians, therefore let us be Finns.” Very well, but what exactly does it mean to be Finns?
In Saisio’s view, the ferryman is taking Finns to the Underworld, but Finns are too busy declaring their visions of Finnishness to notice that they are just seconds away from perishing, from becoming extinct. ”Is this Finland?” The ferryman answers in a flat voice, uninterested.
The author and journalist, Zachris Topelius (1818-98), who wrote in Swedish, launched patriotism with his children’s tale, The Birch and the Star, in the 1860s. It is based on Topelius’ family history: one of his ancestors was kidnapped by Russian soldiers and sold to a wealthy owner in St Petersburg. The boy chose to leave the good life behind and escaped. His path is guided by a memory of a star that shines through the branches of a birch tree next to his parents’ cottage.
As an aside, let me point out a similarity to a much later story; namely, that of Edouard Kochergin. It took little Edouard six years to get back to his home in Leningrad from Siberia, where Stalin’s persecution had stationed him. Kochergin later became the scenographer of Gorky / Tovstonogov Theatre in Leningrad; his book is entitled Christened with Crosses (2011).
Saisio takes Topelius’ little boy Kristoffer (Jukka Puotila) and his sister Hagar (Tiina Weckström) through major turning-points in Finnish history up to the near future, when the siblings have invited their friends to have fun for a day in the ancient Topelian cottage, now turned into a holiday retreat. The first hour and twenty minutes before the intermission of Laura Jäntti’s direction is spent laying the foundation, and that is far too long. The friends are all chatterboxes: one is infatuated with all the various cheeses she has brought along, one quips a film quote to contradict everything the others may say.
During the second half, the performance finally starts addressing issues it is actually interested in. In a newspaper interview, Saisio confessed to canvassing her friends on social media which themes she should choose for the play. Biographies of unsung female heroes from history were often put forward, but Saisio declined, saying that the result would be predetermined, and Saisio prefers to surprise. For a Finnish mind, she handles ambiguity and uncertainty quite well. In Koivu ja Tähti, she shows, as far as I can understand, that the so-called opposites in our conception of history and identity are no simple dichotomies; rather, the echo to each and every issue resounds from myriad directions. There is not one counterargument but several. It is impossible to piece them together into a unity.
This shows in the structure of the play, too. It is episodic, almost anecdotal, rather than driven by plot or psychology. I am not sure whether this is a result of ambitious dramatic thinking—Saisio served as Professor of dramaturgy at the Theatre Academy from 1997 to 2001—or just a heap of material crammed into three hours.
Ecology is a main theme of the production. Before any humans step onto the stage, the trees have a conversation amongst themselves. They are tall pipes with actors hanging from them in mid-air. The light creates a magical atmosphere in this forest. The trees worry about finding true love and about getting eventually logged for the needs of pulp mills. But, even if the Finns will no longer exist, the trees will. Saisio’s long-term ecological concern is more optimistic than Laura Ruohonen’s in her Luolasto, also at the National, in 2014 (www.critical-stages.org/10/after-us-the-deluge-apres-nous-le-deluge/). Ruohonen, Professor of dramaturgy at the Theatre Academy from 2008 to 2013, wrote about burying nuclear waste in subterranean caves.
The phantom of communism is Saisio’s next favourite theme. In Koivu ja Tähti, the communist of the company has corpse-bearers carry a huge dismounted statue of Lenin into the cottage, where it literally occupies plenty of space. Communism is something the Finnish cultural elite never really distanced itself from. From the late 1960s to the mid-1980s, there seemed to be fewer than a dozen theatre persons who publicly dared declare themselves non-communist; the left hegemony was all-powerful. And when the Soviet Union fell, fewer than a dozen would be a fair estimate of how many felt a need to re-evaluate their commitment. Saisio is an exception: her Les enfants de Baïkal has its characters probe their conscience for closing their eyes against Soviet human rights violations. Saisio never forgets to mention how brutally Soviet communism treated minorities, for example, ethnic and sexual. Les enfants de Baïkal premiered at KOM Theatre in Helsinki, in 2002, and was performed in French at Panta Theatre in Caen. And Saisio, together with composer Jussi Tuurna, wrote a musical about the Finnish homosexual community for the National Theatre in 2011 (http://www.critical-stages.org/6/homo-a-gay-fantasy-on-national-themes/).
My objection is that in Koivu ja Tähti the communist character is clearly a man of the past. I do not sense danger in his antics. One more thing to worry about are the two Thai characters, a maid and a girlfriend, played by ethnic Finns for the simple reason that there are no Thai actors in the country: why do they speak English to each other and not Thai, when the Finns push them out of the cottage to perform menial tasks? For the benefit of us spectators, of course, but it is not politically correct. With the sudden turns a phrase can take, the beauty of language are always Saisio’s assets, but,outside of Finnish she encounters difficulties. A most unexpected military manoeuvre erects a giant wall between Finns and their promised land, making them refugees. The soldiers speak an invented language, which bears no resemblance to existing tongues. Very well, but is it the phantom of Lenin which keeps Saisio from making a direct comparison to the occupation of Crimea? And how come the Thais are able to act as interpreters between Finns and soldiers—may we expect an attack from the Far East?
*Matti Linnavuori wrote theatre criticism from 1978 to 2013 for various newspapers and weeklies in his native Finland. In 1985, he worked for the BBC World Service in London. Since 1998, he has presented papers at numerous IATC events. In the 2000s, he wrote for Teatra Vestnesis in Latvia. Since 1992, he has written and directed several radio plays for YLE the Finnish Broadcasting Company. In 2016, his award-winning play, Ta mig till er ledare (Take me to your leader) was produced at Lilla teatern in Helsinki.