Soila Lehtonen*

Musta Saara (”Black Sara”). A play by Pirkko Saisio. Composer: Jussi Tuurna.

Director: Laura Jäntti. Scenography: Kati Lukka. Costumes: Tarja Simone. Lighting designer: Morten Reinan. Sound designer: Jussi Matikainen, Ville Leppilahti. Choreography: Janne Marja-Aho. Make-up artist: Jari Kettunen. Actors: Juha Muje, Katariina Kaitue, Janne Marja-aho, Sinikka Sokka, Ulla Tapaninen, Tiina Weckström, Jani Karvinen, Erkki Saarela, Timo Tuominen, Kristiina Halttu, Mikko Kauppila, Ville Mäkinen, Harri Nousiainen, Annika Poijärvi, Linda Hämäläinen, Panu Kangas, Petri Knuuttila, Taru Still, Erik Rehnstrand / Petri Pulkkinen, Risto Apunen, Sami Saari.

Orchestra: Jussi Tuurna, Ville Leppilahti, Topi Korhonen, Esko Grundström, Sara Puljula, Tommi Asplund.

Premiered on the main stage of the Finnish National Theatre in Helsinki, September 12, 2018.

Circus, cabaret, a score in the spirit of Brecht & Weill, populism, refugees, a sad love story, homeless Roma, talking animals, religious beliefs, porcine and human hubris, barbed wire, extracts of opera, valkyries and hussars hankering after a lost glorious past, the magic mirror of Vlad the Impaler (aka Dracula)–these are some of the components that make up Musta Saara, a serious satire about Europe today.

Around the campfire the Roma are entertained by their Dancing Bear (Erkki Saarela). Photo: Tuomo Manninen

Transylvania, Camargue, Paris, Hungarian plains, the air above Europe: this voluminous cross-bred creation scatters its scenes all over Europe, taking place also, both theatrically and meta-theatrically, in the National Theatre, Helsinki. Which is in Finlandistan, as the populist politician Monsieur “Sharp Pen,” puts it.

Reading the script, I dare assume, many might become confused. Even I was when I did–fortunately I had seen the performance before reading the script. It contains plenty of meta-theatrical dialogue–actors addressing the audience, describing what’s happening on the stage, calling each other by their real names–which may make one vacillate between irritation and amusement. The ramifying story proceeds with multiple twists and turns, the short scenes are filled with a motley array of characters, speeches, extracts of librettos and thematic allusions, an ending takes its time. . . .

But for me it worked: the performance seemed to run effortlessly. The script married the score in harmony and mutual love.

And, as a devoted fan of Jussi Tuurna’s dramatic musical language, I will, despite its being repetitive, quote myself, from my review of Pirkko Saisio and Tuurna’s first co-production (2011) at the National Theatre, HOMO! A Gay Fantasy on National Themes, “. . . its well-performed operatic score pumps into it a hugely entertaining musical spirit. Tuurna’s compositions are versatile, vigorously melodic, rhythmically varied, emotional, but not sentimental—not at all unlike Kurt Weill’s dramatic narrative scores for Bertolt Brecht’s plays.”

The senior chorus girls of Moulin Rouge (Tiina Weckström, Ulla Tapaninen, Sinikka Sokka) keep changing roles from pink pigs to hussars or valkyries. Photo: Tuomo Manninen

What appeared on stage worked, thanks to the ensemble. It is not very long ago that the National Theatre was, by tradition, almost devoid of musical theatre. It has turned out that there is no shortage of competent, and best, very passionate singers in the ensemble–this has now been proven, for example, in the three Saisio & Tuurna productions in 2011, 2015 (Slava! Honour: An Opera of Oligarchs, set in contemporary Russia) and 2018, all directed by Laura Jäntti.

***

Saint Sarah, Sara the Black, Sara-la-Kali or the Black Madonna is the Romani patron saint, still celebrated on May 24, when her statue is carried down to the sea to re-enact her arrival in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer in the Camargue. In Musta Saara a group of Roma have European passports but no permanent place to live. Offered the site of a huge former piggery by a ridiculous delegation of Romanian and EU officials, they refuse, continuing their journey to Camargue to seek spiritual consolation from Saint Sarah. On stage their journey serves as a framework for the story.

Janne-Maria Teräväkynä (“Sharp Pen”), ex-leader of the National Party (Juha Muje, left) is not pleased: his daughter Marina (Katariina Kaitue) has employed a new Head of Communications, the Rom Mircea (JanneMarja-Aho). Photo: Tuomo Manninen

The central characters are father and daughter Janne-Maria and Marina Teräväkynä (“Sharp pen”), National Party politicians keen on running for the presidency of France, Marina’s new Head of Communications, Mircea (a Rom); and two animals, escaped from captivity: Tall Thin Pig (with an axe in his skull: the result of a failed animalicide) and Dancing Bear (who likes to see himself as an artist).

The trio of cabaret girls of advanced age (Sinikka Sokka, Ulla Tapaninen, Tiina Weckström) keeps popping up in various roles, among them hussars who guard the eastern border of Europe against “Tatars and Ottomans,” and valkyries whose message is “Turn your clocks backwards, the future will arise from the past!” The ladies sing like (black) angels.

A minor but significant role is allotted to the cruel Vlad the Impaler, Count Dracula of the Carpathians, whose magic mirror may show strange reflections to those who look into it. Timo Tuominen’s Dracula is a hilariously sinister figure gliding on wheels around his gloomy abode, lit by anonymous human candleholders reminiscent of Jean Renoir’s La Belle et la Bête.

Visually Musta Saara is a cornucopia of detailed costumes and appearances, the dramatic changes of lighting and inventive theatrical tricks. The intensive and passionate score, at times verging on melodrama in a very entertaining way, keeps carrying the performance and the spectator along, like on a ride in a roller coaster.

***

The determined Marina (Katariina Kaitue) challenges her grumpy father (Juha Muje) in the election. She is rhetorically much more skilled than he, but after attempting to take up the role of Jeanne d’Arc of the twenty-first century, she fails to win the political race.

Instead of the spiritual consolation they seek, the Roma find bodies washed ashore in Camargue, the result of the humanitarian tragedy in contemporary Europe.

Tall Thin Pig (Jani Karvinen), chancing upon the Carpathian castle of Vlad the Impaler alias Dracula (Timo Tuominen), sees a potentially great future in his host’s magic mirror. Photo: Tuomo Manninen

Wandering in the woods Tall Thin Pig (Jani Karvinen) and Dancing Bear (Erkki Saarela) lose their way and also end up in Dracula’s castle. Their host predicts a great future in the power game for the Pig, because he has no personality; encouraged by this prospect of fame and glory, the Pig joins the National Party. According to his ambitious strategy, what Europe needs is non-European human flesh, willing to move wherever business wants it to move—which is a return to slavery. But, in the end, the human-pig becomes consumed by his self-assured hubris and desire for power, and Karvinen, quite convincingly, sings his Pig into self-destruction.

Musta Saara deals with deep human conflicts, fundamental problems and unanswerable questions in contemporary Europe. What the reflection in the satirical mirror of Musta Saara, however, seems to claim as true is that the past—whether real or imaginary—has no future to offer, not to anyone.


*Soila Lehtonen is a journalist and theatre critic, and the former Editor-in-Chief of the online literary journal Books from Finland (www.booksfromfinland.fi). She is an Honorary Vice-President of IATC-AICT.

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