Two productions by Juha Hurme. Operaatio Paulaharju in the Lemmenjoki national park in Finnish Lapland, August 2015. Muuttomiehet at KOM theatre in Helsinki, premiere September 16, 2015.
Juha Hurme (born 1959) sleeps in a tent for a hundred nights each year. He is a director, playwright and novelist, who immerses his viewers in eccentric turns of phrase and mise-en-scène. His characters are capable of more linguistic tones than one usually enjoys on the Finnish stage. Hurme’s characters are no strangers to elevated style, when the occasion rises for passionate statements about their favorite authors or their favorite pessimism on the achievements of the human race. There is a comic dimension to all this, of course, and the characters’ self-awareness makes them gloriously knowledgeable about that, too.
Hurme started in the province and often works with amateur actors. He seldom directs in the capital. This looks like a total lack of career orientation. In Hurme’s novel Nyljetyt ajatukset (2014, “Skinned thoughts”), two men row an open boat along the Finnish coastline for seven hundred kilometers, all the time talking about literature and music. Both guys turn out to be fans of Stanislaw Witkiewicz and, less surprisingly, of Shakespeare, but their take on Brecht is a hilarious parody of the German master’s clichés. It goes without saying that Hurme researched the novel’s subject by rowing the same route himself.
It seems to me that Hurme had more mini-lectures than he could cram into the five-hundred-page novel. The characters in his play Muuttomiehet (“Removal men”) talk much the same way at KOM Theatre in Helsinki. Or one could say that Hurme is in possession of a unique language and that his way of juxtaposing facts is unique.
In Muuttomiehet, removal men (Eeva Soivio and Juho Milonoff) are about to carry boxes to a new house situated at Borderline 16, when they realize that the house is yet to be built. Someone is about to arrive on bicycle with a 3D printer to print the real printer, which will then print the elements of the house. Meanwhile, the three new inhabitants must camp in the open and seek shelter in their removal boxes. Matti Rasi’s set is, quite literally, a haphazard-looking pile of boxes on which the actors climb both when chasing each other and when proclaiming things from a podium.
One box is occupied by a trekker dead long ago (Niko Saarela). He is the ex-boyfriend of one new inhabitant (Vilma Melasniemi). His box is, again also literally, heavy with memories. The trekker has plenty to say about the economic and ecological exploitation of Spitzbergen, the goal of his last expedition. Hurme lets the world have it with a real avalanche of facts. In the latest Finnish dramaturgy Hurme is not alone in his arctic interest, but Leea Klemola’s arctic trilogy “about” Greenland deserves a mention (Kokkola, 2004, Into the Cold, 2008, New Karleby, 2011).
The address at Borderline hints that the characters are about to move into the next world. None of them has a name. The belongings of a woman (Laura Malmivaara) and a man (Pekka Valkeejärvi) have somehow merged, and they end up quarrelling about the possession of a house plant, a makeup-bag (he claims to be an occasional drag artist) and what not.
The removal men guide the goings-on and the aesthetics of the performance. They address the auditorium directly as their whim urges them to. They muse that a song is what the performance needs at a given moment, and invite the rest of the cast to join them in singing “we need more evidence about who and what we are,” in the words of a poem by Miira Luhtavaara.
Music composed by folk musician Petra Poutanen-Hurme, the director’s wife, is essential also in Operaatio Paulaharju.
Operaatio Paulaharju is a five-year project taking place in the northernmost national parks of Finnish Lapland. Every late August till 2018, for one week, trekkers are treated to a no-admission-fee show of Samuli Paulaharju’s short stories dramatized and directed by Juha Hurme, and performed in the open air.
Samuli Paulaharju (1875-1944) was a teacher of deaf children and an ethnologist, who published only one work of fiction. Tunturien yöpuolta (1934, Arctic Twilight in English translation, 1982) contains horror stories based on northern mythology.
In one story, a Lapland witch casts a spell on the priest who shot dead his reindeer. Driven by hallucinations, the priest ends his life with a similar spastic dance which took the reindeer over the brink of a mountain to its death. At the end, the priest relinquishes the Bible from his hands, and Petra Poutanen-Hurme climbs on the wooden book to conduct the actors’ choir: art is mightier than religion. With Paulaharju, ancient Sami wisdom challenges the teachings of the church, and the church is employed by the power structures as an instrument to subjugate a first nation.
The performance takes place at the shoreline of Lake Ravadas in the national park of Lemmenjoki, the place of the Finnish gold rush of the nineteenth century. We sit on a slope. There are tiny blueberries within an arm’s reach, and anybody’s arms are within reach for biting midges. Before and after the forty-minute show trekkers share stories of how many kilometers each has walked to Lake Ravadas; my friends and I took eleven hours to the show and back to our cabin, covering twenty-two kilometers. The mountain paths are strewn with stones, which threaten one’s ankles at every step.
Hurme’s most successful production so far was Europaeus (2014) at the National Theatre in Helsinki. It showed excerpts from the life of D. E. D. Europaeus (1820-1884), a priest and folk poetry enthusiast, who was neglected by the academic community of his time. Academics wished to promote nationalism. Not so Europaeus, and consequently, he died from hunger in St Petersburg.
The fictitious nature of characters in Muuttomiehet renders many things less significant than the power of sheer facts in Europaeus. Hurme draws daring parallels between then and now in suggesting how unanimity—both academic and artistic—hinders real discoveries from becoming perceived and adopted.
*Matti Linnavuori wrote theatre criticism between 1978 and 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 October 2015, his play Ta mig till er ledare (“Take me to your leader”) tied the victory in the playwriting competition of Lilla Teatern in Helsinki.