Sofi Oksanen on Russian Anti-Gay Practices

Matti Linnavuori*

Mansikkapaikka. Written by Sofi Oksanen. Directed by Mika Myllyaho. Costumes by Auli Turtiainen. Music by Samuli Laiho. Set by Eliisa Rintanen and Mika Myllyaho. Lighting and video by Ville Virtanen. Sound by Grégory Maisse. Premiere March 6, 2024, at the Finnish National Theatre in Helsinki.

Sofi Oksanen is Finland’s best-known contemporary serious author. Her breakthrough play Purge (Puhdistus, 2007) on a small experimental stage of the National Theatre described ethical conflicts in Soviet-occupied Estonia. Purge, produced in a number of theatres in Finland as well as abroad, also became a novel (2008) which has been translated into more than 40 languages, and the story has been made into a film and an opera. The ethical demarcation line traverses every individual, who is equally capable of care-giving as well as betrayal. Purge was directed by Mika Myllyaho; he was appointed Director General of the National Theatre only three years later.

The set is a shipping container, which houses the Moscow clinic in the middle and the strawberry farm on each side, leaving room at the top for videos. The actors L-R: Pirjo Luoma-aho as Grandmother, Otto Rokka as Ville, Janne Reinikainen as the psychiatrist and Maria Kuusiluoma as Ville’s mother. Photo: Mitro Härkönen

The two now join forces again in Mansikkapaikka, only this time on the main stage of the National. A literal translation of the title would be Strawberry Farm, which is the starting location of the goings-on. “Farm,” however, fails to convey connotations of a safe haven, a treasured secret place from childhood where one always found wild strawberries, the not rare yet the best delicacy of Northern meadows. Mansikkapaikka is also the Finnish, literally translated title for Ingmar Bergman’s film Wild Strawberries (1957).

Alina (Wenla Reimaluoto) and her father (Petri Liski) with strawberry plants. Photo: Mitro Härkönen

The strawberry farm is run by a Finnish man (Petri Liski) with his Ukrainian wife (Maria Kuusiluoma). The time is February 2022, Russia’s attack against Ukraine. Their daughter, Alina (Wenla Reimaluoto), has just begun her working life as a police officer. She has found evidence to convict an off-stage neighbor for human trafficking of Thai pickers of wild forest berries. The couple’s son, Ville (Otto Rokka), is in a cell at a Moscow clinic, being questioned by the manifestly named psychiatrist Vladimir Vladimirovich (Janne Reinikainen). It soon becomes clear that the clinic serves for conversion therapy to “heal” homosexuals from their “illness.”

Psychiatrist Vladimir Vladimirovich (Janne Reinikainen, front) leafs through a notebook, which Ville (Otto Rokka) has left blank. Photo: Mitro Härkönen

The story of the play then reveals that it is Ville’s mother and her mother (Pirjo Luoma-aho) who have tricked Ville into the clinic, after their failed attempts with prayer and a shaman to rid Ville of his homosexuality. We follow Alina on her journey to free Ville from Moscow. During the process, she realizes that her nearest relatives are, to say the least, morally ambiguous and that she is no different. The performance begins and closes with a few convoluted dance moves by Alina; to me, this says how profoundly difficult it is to reach a satisfactory moral balance.

Mansikkapaikka has more affinities with Oksanen’s five novels than with Purge. It resembles bestseller thrillers, those sold at airports: meticulously researched details create a conspiratorial atmosphere, while they also authorize the narrator as the supreme party able to set things straight. Oksanen’s fiction is exciting because it lacks almighty heroes and, more notably, because both the bad guys and the good guys are women. They are ordinary women caught in extraordinary circumstances and left to manage as best they can. They do not escape unharmed.

The shipping container as a city silhouette with Alina (Wenla Reimaluoto). Photo: Mitro Härkönen

With Oksanen, conspiracies do not just loom ominously: she presents documented statements. Thus, the psychiatrist is based on existing Soviet and Russian anti-gay practices and practitioners. Director Myllyaho said in pre-premiere interviews that the psychiatrist’s chair is lifted from the stage floor to indicate his statue-like status. This leaves Janne Reinikainen with limited acting material. The psychiatrist’s motivation is exposed toward the end of the play—it is an echo from past decades that a closet gay should seek power to torment his own kind.

In Mansikkapaikka, Oksanen adds to her usual dramatis personae a new variation of the protagonist in Ville, the persecuted gay youngster. He comes nearest to a positive hero, if I may borrow a concept from socialist realism; what gives Ville his inner resilience is never explicitly pronounced; certainly it is not his romantic love for an off-stage Ukrainian berry-picker but, rather, a naïve trust on his West European citizenship providing protection.

The Moscow apartment of the well-to-do aunt Masha (Wanda Dubiel), where she asks Alina (Wenla Reimaluoto) to try on various dresses, while Ville (Otto Rokka) is kept in a cell at the clinic. Photo: Mitro Härkönen

No doubt it is difficult to write a Russian psychiatrist as a many-sided individual, given that he must keep delivering phrases which comply with aggressive propaganda. Oksanen has not, however, succumbed to the temptation of bloating his evilness into grand dimensions. There is even less text in the role of Masha, Ville’s aunt, who lives in Moscow and who is a sworn Putinist. Wanda Dubiel deliciously portrays Masha, who professes belief in Russia’s imminent victory and cannot wait to enjoy it to the fullest. Her relatives at the Finnish strawberry farm say they detest her politics, but old allegiances are not so easily abandoned.

Perhaps because Oksanen relies on facts as a basis for her fiction, her opening scenes, both in Mansikkapaikka and Purge, are very long and explanatory in establishing the situation. Mansikkapaikka compresses so many issues into two and a half hours that the characters are in danger of becoming carriers of issues rather than individuals. The three generations of Ukrainian immigrants hurl accusations of cultural and political misunderstanding at each other, but they do their best not to dig deeper into their conflicting beliefs. A lost opportunity, I think.

The mother (Maria Kuusiluoma) of Ville and Alina sticks to her beliefs. Photo: Mitro Härkönen

According to a Finnish proverb, a foreign land is a bilberry, homeland is a strawberry. Never uttered directly, this is nonetheless the metaphoric foundation that the play is built on. The convicted off-stage neighbor exploits bilberry pickers; Ville sketches bilberries in the notebook, where the psychiatrist demands he write a masturbation journal. If the play receives productions abroad, I wonder how well the berry metaphor of the characters’ inner reality will function, or if the outer reality of current politics will be the focus. There are numerous hostage and custody films, where a happy end means being able to return to one’s home country. Oksanen gives this a nice twist, when Ville on his escape from Russia refuses even to see his mother but prefers Berlin, where his Ukrainian boyfriend now lives, still off-stage.

Between Purge and Mansikkapaikka the Finnish National Theatre has also produced a dramatization of Oksanen’s novel When the Doves Disappeared in 2013.

In February 2024, Finnish prosecutors began a court process against the director of a berry-picking company and his Thai associate on 56 counts of human trafficking. The company has not suspended the director. Another company’s director is under police investigation, and so is the government official responsible for preparing renewed legislation for the berry business. In 2022 the Supreme Court sentenced a Finnish man to prison on 26 counts of human trafficking of Thai berry pickers. 

*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 © 2024 Matti Linnavuori
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