Stage Helsinki Theatre Festival 2012, Finnish Case, August 16-19, Helsinki, Finland.
I attended this Finnish Case/Stage Helsinki Theatre Festival and saw six shows. Of course it is outrageous to generalize about contemporary Finnish theatre based on these six. But, unfortunately, that is the situation I am often invited into—maybe because I am a critic from a different culture; maybe because I am President of the International Association of Theatre Critics. It is also true, though, that the contemporary Finnish theatre showcased in this 2012 Finnish Case had been selected by two Finnish jurors from the Korjaamo theatre that hosts and organizes this festival annually. Therefore, the shows in the 2012 Finnish showcase define contemporary Finnish theatre as seen by these two, or at least tell us what they liked best among today’s theatre offerings of this reclusive Scandinavian country.
Having said that, now I am ready to present my impressions from my four-day stay in Helsinki last summer. By far the most distinguishable characteristic of today’s Finnish theatre was the dominance of dramatists. Significantly, the Finnish National Theatre is directed by playwright Mr Mika Myllyaho, who in turn tries to foster new playwrights. I have not seen this many dramatists in Europe over the last twenty years, a period when I have attended a large number of international and national theatre festivals. Wherever I have visited, local dramatists have been nowhere in evidence. About ten years ago in Vilnius, for example, I asked Lithuanian directors at a conference why there were no local dramatists in the 2002 edition of the Sirenos Festival, and one of the directors answered that they didn’t need local dramatists when they had Shakespeare, Chekhov and Gogol as their contemporaries. This view is still held in Lithuania and many other countries of the Baltic and Balkan regions. In Europe, I think Hungary and Slovakia are the two countries that try institutionally to cultivate and encourage new dramatic writing through contemporary drama festivals, thanks to their strong tradition of respecting the role of the dramaturge in the theatre. Finland, at least for this summer, did so and more.
Consequently, language is by far the dominant element of the Finnish theatre. In this era of post-dramatic theatre, this is quite exceptional. It may have looked especially exceptional because I came to Helsinki right after seeing the performance art group Ensemble 209 showcased in Tel Aviv, Israel, a group which uses language only as action with no semantic function, as seen in their productions Tales of Old Wives, Remix, Cookies, House of Bernada Alba and Ding Dong. Here in Helsinki, language was almost everything. Three of the six shows I saw were more like staged readings than theatrical productions: Family Member (written and directed by Milja Sarkola), Knives Cut the Air (directed by Jussi Moila), and The Field (written by Okko Leo and directed by Mikko Roiha). Spectacle, the foregrounded element of today’s physical or visual theatre, was minimal and extremely modest. The basic structure of the stage was repeatedly used exposed and without any decoration, with only a couple of light sources and objects. Even the stage violence in The Field and Knives Cut the Air was choreographed. That is, in this time of in-yer-face theatre that thrives on actual blood and sperm and real violence, here the violence was done safely enough not to disturb the audience’s equilibrium. As a whole, the stagings of these shows were not aesthetically developed enough to be called theatre performance. They were definitely staged readings, in my international estimation.
The language itself was different and unique—more monologues than dialogues. In Family Member, for instance, the three main characters—Father, Mother, Daughter—draw us deep into “a family drama which could be described without flippancy as a feminist Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” as keenly observed by British critic Ian Herbert. But the actors frequently step out of their roles and speak directly to the audience about theatre and acting, adulthood and parenthood, success and failure, the role of women and many other issues relevant to our times. The monologic concept of the play’s dialogues is particularly emphasized when Father plays the final scene of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman where Biff tries to force Willy to face his true self. In this play-within-the-play scene, Father acts the roles of both Willy and Biff, so the scene becomes a monologue rather than a dialogue. This monologic device helps the characters (or actors) delve into ponderings of a philosophical nature, just as Shakespeare’s soliloquies do.
It was quite admirable that this kind of language-oriented, philosophical and modest theatre was so well attended and liked by the Finnish audience. It may have much to do with the national character of the Finnish people. They are very individualistic, pragmatic loners. They are definitely not sociable people. As environmentalists, they like to face nature alone, deplore all decorative rhetoric in speech and abuses of natural resources. They are very committed to simple and modest lifestyles. I think the linguistic dominance and its uniqueness in the Finnish theatre does very well to represent the Finnish people. At the same time, this characteristic of the Finnish theatre is too Finnish to be enjoyed beyond the Finnish borders. Finnish theatre is, as far as I know, the least invited to international theatre festivals in and out of Europe. It is ironic that the Korjaamo theatre has made it very public that it wants to promote contemporary Finnish theatre abroad but has still selected these too-Finnish shows for the festival.
The extreme opposite of this verbal theatre was Kristian Smeds’ 12 Karamazovs, and between the extremes was Leea Klemola’s Jessica’s Pup. Kristian Smeds, who won the Europe Theatre Prize’s New Realities award in 2011, employs quite faithfully the aesthetics of the post-dramatic theatre in his direction of his own text. He uses Dostoyevsky’s novel only as a pretext to present his own worldview of post-Christianity. Dostoyevsky’s religious themes are tackled in a distorted manner: Jesus enters Jerusalem on a kitschy paper donkey, and he is rather raped homosexually than crucified; three old Roma-looking women shout “To Moscow! To Moscow! To Moscow!” as if they are Chekhov’s three sisters in a comic; the Karamazov brothers are multiplied and disseminated; lots of blood, sperm and saliva fill the stage among Ring Master or Lord Smeds’ 12 Estonian disciples. But the show is much more of a hard rock concert than a narrative theatre piece. Each of Smeds’ students from the Estonian Drama Academy sings and plays several musical instruments during the four-hour show.
It is definitely more theatrical than literary, much more visual than verbal, rather more performativity-oriented than narrative-oriented, much more dialogic than monologic, much more physical than philosophical. In a word, very post-dramatic. The audience received the play with such hilarity and understanding that I couldn’t detect any reservation or distance between the stage and the auditorium.
Woman playwright-director Leea Klemola presented a very comic—comic in an un-Finnish way—family drama Jessica’s Pup. It is an anti-civilization piece in which Jessica “takes her family into the forest, far away from modern technology, to dig up the essence of her relationship to her son, her husband, and her own self.” She becomes at the end a dog with a tail, goes naked like her therapy dog, and is born free again. It is a farce with a serious theme. Although the composition of the play is quite conventional, and the interaction between the characters is well structured, Klemola’s imagination is so powerful that the play’s conventionality doesn’t bother today’s sophisticated audiences at all. The audience’s reception to this play was by far the most enthusiastic among the six shows I saw during the festival.
Watching these latter two un-Finnish play productions received so rapturously, I began to think anew about the relationships between the modern and post-dramatic theatres, the verbal and physical theatres, and the narrative and performance theatres. 12 Karamazovs was post-dramatic, physical, performative but quite predictable, while Jessica’s Pup was more modern than post-dramatic, more verbal than physical, more narrative- than performance-oriented, but it was still quite unpredictable. The other Finnish plays, Family Member, Knives Cut the Air, The Field, were mostly verbal, modern and narrative-oriented. If I had to choose the ideal form of theatre for today and the future, what form would it be? I guess it is the kind of theatre that Jessica’s Pup represents, which combines conventional structure and contemporary themes with production aesthetics that can communicate effectively with today’s challenging audiences. It has long seemed to me that the post-dramatic theatre has forgotten that theatre is a communication art.
 Yun-Cheol Kim is President of IATC; recipient of the Cultural Order of Korea; Professor at the School of Drama, Korea National University of Arts; editor-in-chief of Critical Stages. Two-time winner of the “Critic of the Year Award,” he has published ten books so far, two of which are anthologies of theatre reviews.
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