Abhorrent yet Admirable Icons of a Small Nation

Matti Linnavuori*

Pentti Linkola – kaltaisemme? (Pentti Linkola—of Our Kind?). Written by Eeva Putro and Atro Kahiluoto, directed by Atro Kahiluoto. Set by Katri Rentto, costumes by Saija Siekkinen, music and sound design by Roni Martin, choreography by Panu Varsta, lighting design by Ville Toikka, video design by Joona Pettersson. Premiere at Finnish National Theatre in Helsinki, May 4, 2023.

How to stage a national icon? This may be a more important question for smaller nations, which cannot afford to waste any potential hero. We must somehow accommodate our heroes’ dark side also, if we are to bask in their glory. Judging by three recent productions in Finland, it is safest to portray the icon only after his death. Yes, his; discovering forgotten geniuses is a different genre and gender. The three Finnish companies have each come up with a similar solution: split the view of the hero between those on the stage.

The Ottos try to drown Jörn Donner’s thousand-page autobiography The Mammoth, but it keeps floating back to the shore in KOM Theatre’s Wild Oats. L-R Vilma Melasniemi and Juho Milonoff. Photo: Jonna Geagea/KOM Theatre

In February 2023, KOM Theatre in Helsinki premiered Laura Mattila’s production of Rikkaruoho (Wild Oats), a dramatization of Otto Gabrielsson’s novel of the same name (2020). Gabrielsson is a Swedish illegitimate son of the Finnish cultural giant Jörn Donner (1933-2020), film director, novelist, Member of the Finnish and European Parliaments to mention only a few of his achievements. Donner, father of six children, found the time and inclination to be a ladies’ man, too. He once dismissed his out-of-wedlock children as ‘wild oats’. Gabrielsson’s book is his attempt to make contact with the father who made every effort to ignore him. Laura Mattila divided the role of Otto into five different traits of personality. Every actor on stage was a different version of Otto. One of the five Ottos gave a short impersonation of Donner.

Impersonation was also an approach in Turkka kuolee (Turkka Dies, 2018), which attempted to dissect the legacy of theatre director Jouko Turkka (1942–2016). The two young women Ruusu Haarla and Julia Lappalainen devoted more than three hours to reach an open verdict over the dis/merits of the controversial director and pedagogue.

The superimposed Pentti Linkola looks on as Panu Varsta dances. Photo: Mitro Härkönen

The latest subject is Pentti Linkola (1932–2020), who came from a family of university professors but chose a lifelong career as a row-boat fisherman, despite his impractical clumsiness. A self-taught ornithologist, he devoted his life to writing fierce prophecies about nature’s imminent extinction. By fierce I mean nothing less than extolling the Nazis for their attempt to reduce the world population—and for their pioneering forest protection program. Linkola advocated self-sacrifice, massive deportations to the countryside, government-controlled birth control and more.

School’s out: Linkola (Mia Hafrén) hurries away to birdwatching, while others celebrate (Eeva Putro, Roni Martin, Timo Tuominen, Panu Varsta). Photo: Mitro Härkönen

The National Theatre production Pentti Linkola—of Our Kind? has three actors perform and comment on episodes from Linkola’s life. One of the actors is the playwright Eeva Putro, whose most noted work so far is Tove (2020), the script for a biopic of the Moomins’ creator Tove Jansson (1914–2001).

Linkola (Timo Tuominen with the ring) listens ecstatically to bird sounds, produced by the performers (Panu Varsta, Mia Hafrén, Eeva Putro). Photo: Mitro Härkönen

Since the episodes are lyrical in nature, a musician and a dancer are also on stage. Co-author and director Atro Kahiluoto creates reserves where understanding and identification might unite if for only a fleeting moment: understanding Linkola’s train of thought and identifying with it from a contemporary stance. Contemporary here does not mean superior knowledge; there is no cancelling Linkola; as the play points out, no new nature can be acquired, we can only save the remains of what already exists, and we are doing a poor job of it.

In Katri Rentto’s set a sleigh serves also as a bird’s nest on top of a tall pine, where Linkola has climbed to ring young ospreys (Pandion haliaetus) (Panu Varsta and Mia Hafrén). Photo: Mitro Härkönen

Theatrically, this philosophy is a risky undertaking and it doesn’t always take flight. There are beautiful scenes, for example when Linkola as a child first allows birdsong to fill his emotions and the performers produce various bird sounds by tapping different surfaces of the set or by simply digging deep into their vocal cords. There are funny scenes such as a therapy session of Pentti Linkolas Anonymous, where everyone admits out loud that “I am a linkoholic and I suffer from having to witness the destruction of nature.”

The sleigh turns into a boat for a family outing. L-R the Wife (Panu Varsta), daughters (Eeva Putro and Mia Hafrén) plus the enthusiastic Linkola (Timo Tuominen). Photo: Mitro Härkönen

Splitting the traits of Linkola among the performers enables the director Kahiluoto to avoid a more-than-potential pitfall in the relationship between Linkola and his wife. The role of the wife is marked by putting a scarf on a male performer’s head. This gives a comic edge to Linkola’s subjugation of her, which—if given a more realistic treatment—would be unpalatable. Linkola’s idea of a perfect holiday is rowing in the Finnish archipelago for a thousand kilometers; she rows, the two small daughters sit at the prow, and he takes notes of sea birds—in endless rain. In this scene it is Timo Tuominen’s turn to play Linkola, and his overflowing joy plus total blindness to the others’ misery really make the point.

There are plenty of songs, composed by the on-stage musician Roni Martin. Music provides the performers with room to take their distance from Linkola without moralizing.

In one scene, Linkola understands he has become a performer, a publicity act. Surprisingly—or with commendable artistic restraint—the actors do not plunge into the ironic dimension of the subject but merely hint at the possible tragedy of the prophet-become-clown.

An affectionate moment in the marriage. The Wife (Panu Varsta) listens to Linkola (Timo Tuominen) coyly read from his first publication. At the back, Eeva Putro and Mia Hafrén duplicate the image, while Roni Martin makes music. Photo: Mitro Härkönen

The split character differs from the traditional, tragically flawed hero. A split character cannot hope to possess a straightforward line of inner growth, since his flaws are contradictory and far from ennobling. But a theatre production must boil the character down to one basic contradiction, and here it is Linkola’s praise for the Nazis—to him it was worse to exterminate trees than people. During his lifetime, Linkola was showered with literary awards for his “style”, which was an uncomfortable way of not mentioning his politics; to this day his books continue to fetch outrageous prices at second hand book stores. Why do we keep respecting his ideas, when he so vehemently hated his humankind?

The show ends with performers imagining how after his death Linkola flies like a bird to a mythical home. Photo: Mitro Härkönen

The National Theatre production offers no forced reconciliation but an evening out in the twilight of Linkola’s life. Old and ailment-ridden, he no longer hears birdsong but only sees it. In a prolonged, sung scene Linkola’s spirit once more sees the world from above as if his spirit were among birds. He rediscovers his childhood’s all-encompassing love for birds. Gradually he dissolves into eternity, into nature, into music and into a myth. 

*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 1993, he has written and directed several radio plays for YLE, the Finnish Broadcasting Company. His latest stage play, Ta mig till er ledare (Take Me to Your Leader, 2016), ran at Lilla Teatern in Helsinki.

Copyright © 2023 Matti Linnavuori
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