Harriet, written and directed by Milja Sarkola. Set design: Kaisa Rasila; costume design: Riitta Röpelinen; lighting design: Ville Mäkelä; sound design: Jussi Kärkkäinen. Première at Ryhmäteatteri, Helsinki, Finland, February 13, 2019.
Medusan huone (Medusa’s Room), written and directed by Saara Turunen. Set design: Milja Aho; lighting design: Ada Halonen; costume design: Suvi Matinaro; sound design: Tuuli Kyttälä; choreography: Janina Rajakangas; make up design: Emilia Kawamura. Première at Q-teatteri, Helsinki, Finland, February 21, 2019.
Fortysomething female auteurs are very much the fashion in Finland’s theatre. For their context please read Hanna Helavuori’s National Report.
Harriet by Milja Sarkola (born 1975) at Ryhmäteatteri in Helsinki shows fifteen versions of a true story: Sarkola’s maternal great-grandmother Harriet Thesleff’s involvement in the death of Major Lagus on April 20, 1918. Finland had gained her independence only a few months earlier.
Mrs Thesleff was a nurse in Major Lagus’s battalion during the Finnish Civil War, but was she obsessively in love with him, or he with her? With visiting Major Gadolin they went for a ride, Gadolin on horseback, Harriet and Lagus in a chaise. Did the men fight a duel over Harriet on the forest road? Did Lagus (Pyry Nikkilä) commit suicide, or was the fatal shot to his head an accident? Was it she who pulled the trigger? Were they ambushed by the Reds?
In subsequent days and months, Harriet (Roosa Söderholm) and Gadolin (Robin Svartström) gave several differing accounts of what had happened. Further interpretations have been published by historians and novelists to the present day; the undying interest is because officers trained clandestinely in Germany formed the backbone of Finland’s army.
Harriet shows the versions in a non-partisan way. Historical truth is elusive, but the consequences of historical events make themselves felt. The burden of guilt seeps into characters; for once, the characters in a historical play do not behave as we, from our time, think they should have. Instead, the choices that were available at the time are respected. The production focuses on individuals; it is up to the spectator to wonder whether the foundation of national self-understanding(s) is based on cover-ups.
The actors establish the epoch at the beginning, with a few gallant gestures. The narrator, old Harriet (Minna Suuronen), opens the white doors of a bourgeois apartment for each episode to reveal itself. A secret cannot be confined to a chamber. The matter-of-fact acting gives way to exaggeration only when a version from a 2016 novel is depicted—to me, the acting style suggests that this is the least reliable of the stories.
The officers’ code of chivalry prevailed for generations, till the 1980s. Only then did male historians put the blame on Harriet’s sexual adventurousness. This view seems now to be giving way to acknowledging a woman’s right to seek her true self.
Saara Turunen (born 1982) directs the premières of her plays. At Q Theatre in Helsinki her latest, Medusan huone (Medusa’s Room) rewrites and reverses the ancient Greek myth of Medusa. The title pays additional homage to Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own (1929).
Turunen shows Medusa’s emergence and development before she ever enters the narrative of the myth. For Turunen, Medusa (Katja Küttner) becomes a woman in her own right, surprised and shamed by her (first?) period. Only then do the male heroes, the rapists, appear in the story. The end again differs from the myth: instead of being slain by yet another male hero, this Medusa becomes empowered and reverses the balance. To her, balance does not mean revenge, but a gentle and genuine acceptance of a space of her own.
My summary, not surprisingly, fails to convey the theatrical beauty of the performance. There is very little dialogue, merely trivial efforts to remain non-committal. In this production, words only support and reinforce existing power structures. But gestures are not to be relied on either: they are copied from commercial and sexist stereotypes. When a character manages to find a gesture of their own, someone will hurry to frown on it, cutting the joy short. It is archaic gestures which bring lasting self-realization. In this way, the performance is quite physical, which is not uncommon in Finnish theatre, but, here, the movement is not of the sweaty kind.
Turunen quotes Hélène Cixious’s Le Rire de la Méduse (1975) as one of her sources. She applies Cixious’s revolutionary idea that women’s laughter will unbalance the established world order by its sheer unexpectedness, by its not-being-allowed. The form of the production embodies this. It is an oblique comedy, which sometimes chooses to target the almost-obvious, and at other times chooses a more layered aesthetic of expression.
The mixing of the performers’ sex is another way of questioning simple truths. The five actors go through a number of costume and gender changes; for example, the masculine icon of contemporary Finnish film Tommi Korpela plays the role of an old woman, who empowers the raped young woman (Katja Küttner) by giving her a wig made from Medusa’s hair. This is not the first time Elina Knihtilä, Professor of Acting at the Theatre Academy since 2013, has played a male role in a Turunen production. In Broken Heart Story (2011, also at Q Theatre), Knihtilä was a moustachioed writer who had lost his soul. Now, she is not only a middle-aged woman desperate to be perceived as pleasant, but also the male arbitrator in charge of humiliating the raped Medusa afterwards. A hilarious detail: the moustachioed arbitrator is a look-alike of Keke Rosberg, the first Finnish Formula One world champion (1982). Later on, Medusa waves Woolf’s book in the air in a futile effort to break the concentration of the men watching a Formula One race on radio.
The actors also undergo changes in their status as performers; for example, Aksinja Lommi graduated as a dancer. Her roles include a dashing bride and a hen. Ylermi Rajamaa’s roles include a dancing pig who hangs women’s wigs on a clothes line.
Three of Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings are superimposed on the back wall during the performance. O’Keeffe’s detailed flowers have their counterpart in the visual imagery of the show. At the beginning, the young woman is ashamed of her period, which drops from inside her dress as rose petals. She hides them in a shell on a table, and, at the end she sprinkles them on her persecutors to restore and awaken them after she has knocked them out.
*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, the latest in 2018. In 2016, his play Ta mig till er ledare (Take me to your leader) ran at Lilla Teatern, in Helsinki.