Once Upon a Time . . . Through a Glass Darkly

Soila Lehtonen*

Laulujoutsen (The whooper swan, in Finnish “song swan”: here, The Swan). A play by Juha Mustanoja. Production dramaturgy: Peppi Toivola. Director: Juha Mustanoja. Music: Juuso Voltti. Scenography: A. Karttunen. Video projections: Rasmus Vuori. Lighting designer: Max Wikström. Sound designer: Maura Korhonen. 3D-programming: Hanna Lehtonen. Zombies and cadavers: Heini Maaranen. Costumes: Noora Salmi. Make-up artist: Kaija Heijari. Actors: Milka Ahlroth, Sanna Hietala, Paul Holländer, Niklas Häggblom, Miko Kivinen, Matti Leino, Petri Manninen, Volter Putro, Antti LJ Pääkkönen, Nora Raikamo, Marja Salo, Sonja Silvander-Valo. A collaboration of Aurinkoteatteri (The Sun Theatre) and the Finnish National Theatre, premiered on the main stage of the National Theatre, Helsinki, April 17, 2024.

What does “popular theatre” mean these days? Should it be assumed that its spectators expect to be entertained but not “disturbed” by something more challenging than comedies and farces?

The new is born out of disturbance, claimed the Finnish director and iconoclast Jouko Turkka (1942–2016).  Disturbing the norm breaks away from what has become popular, familiar, customary (conventional, dated, mass-market) and, at best, creates new forms of art.

L-R the Sun Theatre artists (Sanna Hietala, Nora Raikamo, Antti LJ Pääkkönen, Miko Kivinen), King Adolphus (Paul Holländer) and the Balladeer Ogoun (Niklas Häggblom). Photo: Tuomo Manninen

The Swan by Aurinkoteatteri (The Sun Theatre, founded in 1989) sets out to disturb the norms, typical of comedies or farces (pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragic-historical, tragic-comical-historical-pastoral).

The first two parts of Juha Mustanoja’s trilogy were Maa-tuska (2015) and Atlantis (2018: see Critical Stages). Maa-Tuska was set on a train journey from St Petersburg to Siberia in the 1890s. This uber-grotesque, comic opera, “a fairy-tale western for adults,” enlightened the audience on (neo)liberalism and the means of surveillance inflicted by the internet, encouraging the spectator to explore the theatre of contemporary politics.

Atlantis was a collaboration with the National Theatre. Subtitled “a tragic tragedy,” it portrayed a paradisiacal, peaceful universe, the demise of which resulted from greed and lust for military supremacy. It turned out to be also a political survey of the slogan “Knowledge is power”; if access to knowledge is not open to all, nothing will remain of the constitutional state.

Lilith the Venetian arms dealer (Sonja Silvander-Valo) presents her wares. Photo: Tuomo Manninen

The Swan, the final part, sets out to illustrate the history of state economy—and the relationship of that history to human dignity. According to Mustanoja, “Our economy is a chimera of feudalism, mercantilism, plantation economy, socialism, capitalism, market economy and so forth.” On stage, the tale is told in an adventurous voyage on the ship The Swan to Venice, on to the Caribbean and back again. The four protagonists—lightly modelled on a tale by the Brothers Grimm, The Town Musicians of Bremen (a donkey, a dog, a cat and a rooster)—are the actors of the popular “Sun Theatre”—in this case, rather a vulgar one.

It is the year 1614 in the town of Turku. The king of superpower-to-be Sweden—of which Finland was an eastern part—Gustav II Adolph, despot and relentless warmonger, comes to visit. He encounters the boisterous, analphabetic ignorami of the Sun Theatre; in their minds the concepts of “art” and “theatre” are limited to somersaulting with loud farts. Somehow, this lot manages to end up burning down the whole town. They then sail away on The Swan, planning to become rich by piracy. The short-sighted king gets lost and ends up on board as well—delighted, as he hopes the voyage will take him to places where he will be able to “slice Turks.”

A sample of commedia dell’arte is deemed crap by the Finnish troupe. Photo: Tuomo Manninen

The balladeer and narrator of the play, Ogoun (Niklas Häggblom), whose appearance brings to mind a sort of “knight of the woeful countenance,” arrives on stage at intervals plucking his electric lute, singing of the ever-present demon of sadness and melancholy that wanders among people throughout time. On the stage, the ship, with a giant symbolic wing as its sails, traverses the background where bold perspectives and vistas of burning cities are seen in appropriately dramatic lighting.

Xenophobic and quick to judge—when their views are not powered by knowledge—the raucous four encounter the Jewish arms dealer and clockmaker Lilith in the Ghetto of Venice, deeming her a sorcerer and capturing her, as they have no clue to what a clock is or what the significance of measuring the time might be.

In Venice, the self-appointed glorious artists encounter five noblemen: Othello the warlord, Galileo the scientist, Marcopolo the merchant, Moreau the physician and Bernardo the inquisitor, faithful cardinal of the Pope. Theirs is a holier-than-thou attitude, being enlightened à la Renaissance—capable of discussing art and the latest scientific discoveries (as opposed to the Medieval nincompoop fart artists from Ultima Thule; when they are presented with a sample of Venetian commedia dell’arte, it inevitably baffles the four bumpkins completely). In their pursuit of power, the Sun Theatre keeps creating constant havoc, so Venice also goes up in smoke, and the Venetians are imprisoned by the belligerent four. The Swan sails on towards the Caribbean.

The Venetians end up chained and enslaved by the actors-cum-pirates (Marja Salo, Volter Putro, Milka Ahlroth, Petri Manninen, Matti Leino). Photo: Tuomo Manninen

The programme informs us that The Swan is also “a school play.” Most of us have an idea of the reference. Uninhibited, puerile, simply goofy—why should grown-ups be denied that kind of fun? Silly comedy á la Swan, being highly original, may nevertheless best appeal to those spectators who have a fairly quirky sense of humour.

Feudalism of the Middle Ages is followed by mercantilism of the Renaissance: buy cheap, sell dear. Buy slaves in Africa, make a profit by selling them in the newly acquired colonies, gain profits by shipping the processed products, such as sugar, overseas. “History of economy is history of power,” the author-director reminds us in the programme.

The plot becomes even wilder: the pirates enslave the Venetians—who have managed to escape prison and follow The Swan—and kill off the natives of the tropical island. But as a workforce is vital for the sugar business, manufacturing zombies, that is, stitching together body parts of the dead natives, will solve the problem: this is executed by the Venetian knowledge of science and Lilith the sorcerer (while the King just keeps himself busy “slicing Turks”).

. . . and, finally, does the last battle result in a win-win situation? The zombies rule the sugar island, the Venetian merchants control world trade. Photo: Tuomo Manninen

Surely all this will end badly? Yes and no: it is the year 1615, and the zombies (visually, highly impressive ogres) whip up a revolution: slaves versus capitalists. After a fierce battle, in the ensuing peace negotiations it is agreed that the zombies will become the owners of the island, and the artists will be driven off. The Sun Theatre demands a shipload of sugar for sailing back to Turku (thus getting rich), whereas the Venetians are clever enough to become the proprietors of the international business (thus getting seriously rich). The artists sail off to Finland, planning to set up a National Theatre there that the folk will love by being treated to popular, “completely brainless musical hogwash” on the main stage. With ginormous farts, no doubt.

The Swan presents us with an interpretation of how we have arrived at the market economy and capitalism. Occasionally, the action-packed “school play” becomes just a tad too crammed. However, amidst the amusing hustle and bustle, there are also entertaining musical numbers as well as some truly lovely moments of beauty when the skillful ensemble performs, in six voices, parts from Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli.

Finally, the melancholy balladeer Ogoun summarizes a fundamental question of the play, “Will a man ever be happy if he tries to pursue more than he needs?” 

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

Copyright © 2024 Soila Lehtonen
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN:2409-7411

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