“It concerns me that we are living in a time of increasing inequality and injustice, with power collecting in the hands of the few, despite the fact that history teaches us this can only lead to conflict. In his book, Homo Deus, the author Yuval Noah Harari predicts a world in which inequity is rife, morality is eschewed and god is displaced by algorithmic determinism. I fear that in a hundred years from now, little will have changed with regard to the challenges humanity faces in trying to live in peace. But I believe the importance of art will grow. Art cannot be replaced by the algorithm, and if god is beauty, then neither can god.”
Mika Myllyaho, director of the Finnish National Theatre, January 2018
In spring 2018, the programme includes several new Finnish works as well as a powerful new interpretation of Shakespeare’s tragic tale of thwarted love, Romeo and Juliet. Directed by Jussi Nikkilä, the production introduces fresh young talent from the Theatre Academy working alongside many long-standing members of the National Theatre’s own ensemble on the Main stage. The production opens in March.
New plays by Juha Hurme, Michael Baran, Mika Myllyaho and Axel and Heini Junkkaala, all directed by their respective authors, fill the theatre’s other stages. Hurme’s Lemminkäinen opens on the Small Stage in March. It is a work inspired by the character of Lemminkäinen in the Kalevala, as well as based on Hurme’s recent novel Peninsula, which won the latest Finlandia prize. Set in the Viking era, the show is a light-hearted reflection on historical facts and fiction. The title role is divided in Hurme’s version into two roles, a brother and sister. Baran’s Girl Walking also reflects on historical perspectives, though the play is set in the present. Three women of different generations learn about each other’s past as they try to negotiate the world of today – a world struggling both to forget and remember the atrocities of the twentieth century. It is a piece about the living and the ghosts that haunt them, opening on the Willensauna Stage in March. On the Omapohja Stage, Myllyaho’s poignant comedy, Workshop, is a two-hander about two mechanics at work in a small town auto repair shop. Jallu is the company owner, battling against bankruptcy; Ola is his hired hand and old friend, a former headmaster who quit after a burnout. Both struggle to keep the place going despite the encroachment of new technology and the need for increased productivity. The play opens in March. Axel and Heini Junkkaala’s Axel, Solo for male voice is a monologue opening in the Club Scene premises in March. Born as a woman but wishing to be seen as a man, Axel’s voice finally broke at the age of thirty-three. The play is a documentary portrait of an individual forced to choose between having the voice of an angel, or having the sexual identity of choice.
Aside from these new plays, another new show opens in the Club Scene space this spring. Kristian Smeds’ Ice Images is a poetic study of northern Finnish life. Smeds revisits one of his earlier works in this production, which opens in April. Opening on the Small Stage in April, the Finnish National Theatre produces a new show in collaboration with Aurinkoteatteri. Entitled Atlantis, the show is written and directed by Juha Mustanoja and takes an anarchic look at scientific advancement.
There is also something new for children this spring. Minna Leino’s adaptation of Veera Salmi’s popular book Mauri and his Mini Big Brother opens on the Willensauna Stage in April. The play, directed by Irene Aho, combines animation and music in this delightful story of a small boy conquering his worst fears: the stomach bug going round the school, and the two class bullies. A new show for the very young has also been created by Ella Pyhältö and Helena Vierikko: Tooth Gremlins based on Thorbjørn Egner’s classic prose-work Karius and Bagtus. The show is performed in the lobby of the Main Stage and opens in February. Last autumn’s new play for children also continues to play on the Main Stage. The Stalactite Case, written and directed by Laura Ruohonen, conjures a richly inventive fantasy world of nonsense characters and verse, with music by Anna-Mari Kähärä. The characters are based on Erika Kallasmaa’s illustrations for Ruohonen’s poetry collection of the same name.
In honour of the nation’s centenary in 2017, the Finnish National Theatre commissioned a new work by Pirkko Saisio which opened last autumn on the Main Stage and can still be seen this spring. An impressionistic tableau mixing myth, history and contemporary reality, Birch and Star takes its inspiration from the classic fable of the same name by Z. Topelius.
Two successful productions on the Small Stage also extend their run this spring: Kjell Westö’s recent award-winning novel Mirage 38, adapted for the stage by Michael Baran and directed by Mikaela Hasán, and Depression Comedy, a new play by Kirsikka Saari and Jenni Toivoniemi opens in November, directed by Mari Rantasila. Set in Helsinki in 1938, Mirage 38 traces the fortunes of a young woman whose war-time experiences in 1918 have far-reaching consequences for a group of well-to-do, well-meaning men of position years later, when Europe is once again on the brink of war. As the mystery surrounding the reticent Mrs Wiik slowly unfolds, the tale examines the repercussions of hidden shame, betrayal and atrocity in a society that fails to address its past. Depression comedy is exactly what its title suggests: a highly comic study of contemporary angst. Driven by the pressure to succeed, middle-aged management consultant Eeva journeys from nervous breakdown to self-realisation through a hilarious sequence of misguided attempts to reboot her career.
Two international modern classics also continue to play to full houses. Anne Rautiainen’s adaptation of Mikhail Bulgakov’s best-known work, Master and Margarita can be seen on the Willensauna Stage. Created with a cast of only six, Rautiainen’s interpretation includes puppets, movement and visual imagery to conjure Bulgakov’s magical world. Just as the novel interweaves myth and reality, tragedy and irony, romance and melodrama, the scenes shift seamlessly between the diabolical and divine layers of the story. Minna Leino’s adaptation of Thomas Bernhard’s Alte Meister, which marked a new collaboration between the Finnish National Theatre and the Helsinki Art Museum (HAM) last autumn, will play in both HAM and the Ateneum Art Gallery this season. In Leino’s interpretation, Bernhard’s vitriolic tirade against Austrian art and society, written in 1985, proves remarkably universal and enduring. It is set in the Bordone Room of Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum, where music critic Reger stares at Tintoretto’s painting White-bearded Man. Meanwhile, he is quietly observed by philosopher Atzbacher as museum attendant Irrsigler looks on. Alte Meister is a warmly sensitive, perceptive and ironic study of art and life, authenticity and forgery, fashion trends and Wienese toilets, Heidegger, loneliness and survival, caricature and kitsch, hell, burial and theatre.
The theatre’s Touring Stage’s most recent production Other Home, also returns by popular demand after a sell-out run last autumn. A documentary based theatre performance, Other Home addresses questions of home and integration, bringing together artists who have entered Finland as asylum seekers with artists who were born here. The show is devised and directed by Jussi Lehtonen and is part of the Touring Stage’s artistic programme of socially engaged theatre, developed through interviews and workshops. The Touring Stage aims to raise awareness of issues affecting marginalised sectors of society. New this season is a production which has been created specifically to tour in reform schools, Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment adapted and directed by Johanna Freundlich. After touring in March and April, the show can also been seen on the Omapohja stage in May. Another new addition to the Touring Stage’s repertoire, available for performance in Community and Elderly Care units, is Leo Honkonen’s one-man show interpreting the life and poetry of Pentti Saarikoski.
Among the many long-running popular works still in repertoire are Tuomas Kyrö’s Happy Times, Mr Grumpy, adapted and directed by Mika Myllyaho, on the Small stage and Miika Nousiainen’s Root Therapy, adapted and directed by Aleksis Meaney which transferred to the Main Stage last season. Both works take a humorous look at human frailty and vulnerability in relation to the greater scheme of things. Kyrö’s ageing hero tries to prepare for that final departure, while Nousiainen’s protagonists, a dentist and his patient, are driven by tooth ache and a shared secret to embark on a self-searching quest.
On the Willensauna Stage there is still an opportunity to see William Shakespeare’s Richard III, translated by Matti Rossi and directed by Jussi Nikkilä. This brutal tale of sinister ambition and betrayal has been given a surprisingly playful and atmospheric interpretation, without losing any of its fierce intensity. Likewise, Arto af Hällström’s successful production of Molière’s Le Malade imaginaire can be seen again on the Main Stage. Hypochondriac Argan places such faith in his entourage of charlatan doctors that he is determined for his daughter Angélique to marry one, thus provoking an intrigue in which the honest must don disguises in order to unmask the pretenders.
The theatre will host several touring productions this season. Two shows come to Helsinki after a successful Edinburgh run in 2017. The Really Small Theatre Company in co-operation with the FNT presents Richard McElvain’s solo piece The Chess Player for two performances in April on the Willensauna Stage. Award-winning actor, director and playwright, McElvain reimagines Stefan Zweig’s classic story as a 75-minute journey exploring the powers of imagination and the pitfalls of obsession. The show is performed in English. In Finland for the first time, a leading circus company from Bogota, Circolombia, will play two performances of their show Acéléré on the Main Stage in May. Their show has been described as “an adrenalin-fuelled mix of strength, skill and daring.”
Among the many other visiting productions is Bound Hands, written by Anna Lipponen, a black comedy about a father and daughter who find each other after the daughter has been diagnosed with Motor Neuron Disease. A joint-production between Eesti Draamateater, Lahti City Theatre and the Estonian Institute in Finland the show will play two performances on the Willensauna Stage in May. Also visiting from Estonia is a production of Vladimir Sorokin’s cult novel Ice, adapted by Iida Hämeen-Anttila and directed by Essi Räisänen, playing for two performances on the Small Stage in May.
An encounter with journalists from the Helsingin Sanomat newspaper, Black Box, continues by popular demand. The project brings journalism to the Small Stage for an evening in which journalists present previously unpublished material and reveal the stories that have touched them the most. Audience outreach work continues with its project involving residents of a Helsinki suburb, entitled Maunula Landscape. The project’s multidisciplinary workshops and eventual performances are devised and directed by Eveliina Heinonen and Juho Gröndahl. This year’s theme focuses on the lives of ordinary people living in the area. The theatre’s educational work also focuses on several youth projects. For example, six of the theatre’s professional artists are mentoring six groups of young people who will be producing their own shows this spring.
As always, a huge variety of performances, music events, readings and discussions also fills the theatre’s own Club Scene venue. The venue’s varied programme can be accessed at www.lavaklubi.fi.
Historical roots of FNT
The Finnish National Theatre, founded in 1872, is the oldest Finnish-language professional theatre in the country. The birth of the Finnish National Theatre was closely linked to the political ideology of the late nineteenth century. Finland was part of the Russian Empire, and the country’s intellectual elite was Swedish speaking. Finnish language and art, including theatre, became the cornerstones of a cultural movement which began in the 1860’s, gradually developed political ambitions by the turn of the century, and eventually led to national independence in 1917.
For the first thirty years of its existence, the theatre functioned primarily as a touring company. The theatre did not acquire a permanent home until 1902, when a purpose-built theatre was erected in the heart of Helsinki, adjacent to the city’s main railway station. The building design was by architect Onni Törnqvist-Tarjanne. This majestic neo-romantic edifice with its façade of Finnish granite and interiors of soapstone, marble and wood, is one of Finland’s most impressive national monuments. The theatre still operates in these premises today, and over the years the building has expanded from its original size to encompass another three permanent stages. In addition to the Main Stage (Suuri näyttämö), the theatre comprises the Small Stage (Pieni näyttämö) built in 1954, the Willensauna Stage built in 1976, and the Omapohja studio built in 1987.
In 2010 the FNT’s governing board appointed the current director Mika Myllyaho, who has expanded the theatre’s activities. He has adopted a policy of associate writers to whom the theatre is committed on a long term basis. He has increased the number of Finnish play commissions and the theatre has also become a venue welcoming a variety of joint productions and guest performances.
A new production unit was established in 2010, under the name of Touring Stage. This unit, which has no fixed stage, aims to take small-scale touring performances to locations throughout the country which have little or no access to theatre, such as schools, day care centres, homes for the elderly, hospitals, welfare reception centres, prisons and so on. The Touring Stage’s programme focuses on topical issues which are developed through community research and interaction, reaching out and giving voice to marginalized sectors of society.
Over recent years, the theatre has also expanded its outreach activities in the realm of theatre in education and community work. Theatre Educator Pirjo Virtanen has initiated and developed many projects and themed events to engage with different sectors of the FNT’s audience base. The programme includes discussion groups, drama courses, literary study, backstage tours and more. The unit also provides educational background material related to the tehatre’s productions for the benefit of teachers.
In January 2011 the theatre’s former restaurant reopened as the Club Scene, transformed into a late-evening club-like entertainment spot. The space has been given a new look, refurbished in a piano-bar stroke artist’s living-room style, and it offers a varied programme of music, drama and poetry performances, discussion evenings and artist soirées, put together by producer Hanna Reetta Majanen.
Throughout its history the Finnish National Theatre has also maintained international links in various forms of partnership with foreign theatres and festivals. This continues today as the theatre co-operates with, among others, the Helsinki Festival to bring over cutting-edge examples of world drama. The theatre also participates in text-based cultural exchanges and workshops, and regularly invites guest directors or other artists from abroad, to bring new perspectives to Finnish theatre. The theatre’s cultural exchange also includes tours and collaboration abroad.