“Theatre must remain engaged – it cannot turn a blind eye or rest on its laurels. We live in strange times, when the most influential leaders in the world are behaving like playground bullies while ordinary parents try to imbue the next generation with mutual respect and sustainable values. In the face of uncertainty and upheaval, it’s tempting to fall back on escapist entertainment but where will that leave us? Theatre’s duty is to stimulate its audience by bringing critical thought to the stage. This autumn’s programme is rich in productions which examine the very essence of being: who we are, why we are and where are we headed.”

Mika Myllyaho, August 2018

Current season

To kick off the season, Pirkko Saisio and Jussi Tuurna have once again joined forces to create their third piece of musical theatre. The piece takes a thought-provoking but visually arresting and humorous look at the current state of Europe: its population movements, its mythical roots, and its conflicting perspectives.  Entitled Black Sara and directed by Laura Jäntti, the show opens on the Main Stage in September.  Launching the Small Stage’s season is Leena Krohn’s modern classic novel Tainaron: Mail from Another City. Adapted for the stage by Iida Hämeen-Anttila and directed by Essi Rossi, Tainaron paints a picture of the future – a future which is already here, but hard for us to see.  As a place, Tainaron is hard to pin down:  totally unrecognizable and yet disturbingly familiar, populated by strange sapient insects. Against a magical dystopia full of poetry and hope, the work explores life’s process of mourning the past, encountering the unknown and accepting change.

The moral, philosophical and spiritual dimensions of human existence are further explored this season in two of Russian literature’s greatest classics.  Paavo Westerberg directs Chekhov’s Three Sisters on the Main Stage and Samuli Reunanen stages his adaptation of Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov on the Small Stage. Both shows open in November.

In the Willensauna Stage human frailty and vanity is comically depicted in Mika Waltari’s modern classic Gabriel. Two elderly sisters fall prey to the handsome Gabriel’s charms, only to discover he is not exactly what he seems. But despite all his cunning, Gabriel meets his match in the women’s niece, Raili, who has her own agenda. This nostalgic, yet ever poignant, comedy of mores is directed by Vesa Vierikko and opens in September. Pajtim Statovci’s highly successful debut novel, My Cat Yugoslavia, follows in November. Adapted by Eva Buchwald and directed by Johanna Freundlich, Statovci’s novel is a searing portrait of individuals caught between two countries, struggling to discover who they are and where they belong.  The story traces a journey from Kosovo to Finland and back again, involving strange encounters with beguiling cats and mysterious snakes.

Two powerful monologues for women are playing in the Omapohja Studio this autumn. Quebec author Jennifer Tremblay’s award-winning and internationally successful play The List opens in September, directed by Irene Aho and performed by Pirjo Määttä.  A woman whose perfectionism is reflected in her carefully organised to-do lists, is bereft at the unexpected death of her neighbour. The List is a gently humorous and perceptive study of how the mundane and the meaningful are inextricably linked.  In connection with the opening of The List, the Finnish National Theatre is profiling the work of four other playwrights from Quebec this autumn.  A reading in English has been organized in cooperation with CEAD (Centre des auteurs dramatiques) which supports the development and promotion of Canadian Francophone playwrights.  Extracts from the work of Sarah Berthiaume, Jean-Denis Beaudoin, Olivier Choinière and Catherine Léger, will be staged in a rehearsed reading at 4pm on Saturday September 15th. The event takes place in the Omapohja Studio, directed by Hilkka-Liisa Iivanainen.

In November, Katja Küttner takes the stage in the Omapohja Studio to perform a new Finnish monologue, Dyke mother. A play which addresses everything one is never told about motherhood, it is written and directed by Heini Junkkaala, and is based on personal experience. It is part of a trilogy of documentary texts by the author.  Another monologue based on personal experience opens in the FNT Club in September. Actor Pekka Heikkinen completes his trilogy on the consequences of a car accident which left him in a wheelchair. One Second per Hour, by Heikki Huttu-Hiltunen, describes the sense of disorientation resulting from the accident. This time Heikkinen is accompanied by live music and dance.

Many of last spring’s shows can still be seen this autumn. Shakespeare’s tragic tale of thwarted young love, Romeo and Juliet, directed by Jussi Nikkilä, continues to play on the Main Stage. 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 show has been particularly popular with young audiences.

Also continuing in repertoire are plays by Juha Hurme, Michael Baran, Mika Myllyaho, Axel and Heini Junkkaala, and Kristian Smeds.  Hurme’s Lemminkäinen, on the Small Stage, is 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. 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 to remember the atrocities of the twentieth century. It is a piece about the living and the ghosts that haunt them, playing in the Willensauna Stage.  Transferring to the Small Stage from the Omapohja Studio, Myllyaho’s successful comedy Garage is a poignant two-hander about two mechanics at work in a small-town auto repair shop. Jallu is the garage owner, battling against bankruptcy; Ola is his hired hand and old friend, a former headmaster currently suspended. Both struggle to keep the place going despite the encroachment of new technology and the need for increased productivity. Axel and Heini Junkkaala’s Axel, Solo male vocal is a monologue playing in the FNT Club. 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.  Also playing in the FNT Club, Smeds’ Frozen images offers a glimpse into the souls and fates of the people who inhabit the harsh landscape of the North. Life is grim, bleak and brutal, but punctuated by sudden flashes of dark humour.

Other long-running shows continuing in repertoire include Kjell Westö’s recent award-winning novel Mirage 38, adapted for the stage by Michael Baran and directed by Mikaela Hasán, Miika Nousiainen’s comic novel Root Therapy, adapted and directed by Aleksis Meaney, and Anne Rautiainen’s sell-out adaptation of Mikhail Bulgakov’s best-known work, Master and Margarita. Rautiainen’s inventive 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.

There are several plays for children this autumn. Minna Leino’s adaptation of Veera Salmi’s popular book Mauri and his Mini Big Brother continues on the Willensauna Stage.  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. The Stalactite Case continues on the Main Stage. Written and directed by Laura Ruohonen, the play 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.  A new piece for the very young opens in the Lobby of the Main Stage in September. Princess Itsy Bitsy is based on the children’s book by Hannele Lampela and Ninka Reittu, and has been adapted for the stage by Lija Fischer, who also directs. It is a magical tale of family dynamics when a new baby is expected.

The Theatre’s Touring Stage continues to produce a number of shows for touring to community care homes and prisons. The most recent additions to their repertoire are two musical performances. The first, Squandering Dreams is based on the German cabaret-style songs of Friedrich Hollaender.  In the second, singer Ali Saed and violinist Sanna Salmenkallio collaborate to explore Finnish and Arabic musical traditions.

Another FNT production available for touring is Minna Leino’s adaptation of Thomas Bernhard’s Alte Meister. The show has been especially conceived to be performed in museum spaces, and marked a new collaboration between the Finnish National Theatre and the Helsinki Art Museum (HAM) last year. It has played in both HAM and the Ateneum, as well as in Sara Hildén Museum at the Tampere festival. 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. Old Masters 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. English surtitles are available.

The theatre will also host several touring productions this season.  This year’s collaboration with the Helsinki Festival brings Martin Zimmermann’s production Ein, Zwei, Drei from Switzerland to the Main Stage in August. Zimmermann explores the boundaries between contemporary circus and physical theatre to create a distorted, absurd reality.  Other touring productions playing this season include Katja Lunden Company’s Flamencosauna (Small Stage), The Theatre Academy and the Free Theatre’s collaboration on Aeschylus’ Oresteia (Small Stage), Omar Albajare and Liisa Isotalo’s Letters from Mosul (Willensauna), Theatre Totti’s production of Eve Ensler’s Vagina monologues (Willensauna), Essi Rossi and Julia Rosa Peer’s Ejaculation (Willensauna), and Between Heaven and Hell, a unique concert performed by Tuomari Nurmio (Main Stage).

An encounter with journalists from the newspaper Helsingin Sanomat, entitled Black Box, continues by popular demand. The project brings journalism to the Main Stage for an evening in which journalists present previously unpublished material and reveal the stories that have touched them the most. Audience outreach work celebrates its tenth anniversary this year. The team continues with its long-standing project Maunula Landscape, involving residents of a Helsinki suburb. The project’s multidisciplinary workshops and 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.

As always, a huge variety of performances, music events, readings and discussions also fills the FNT Club venue. The venue’s varied programme can be accessed at www.lavaklubi.fi.

HISTORICAL ROOTS OF THE 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. 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 homes for the elderly, hospitals, welfare reception centres, prisons and so on. The Touring Stage’s programme focuses on socially engaged theatre, developed through community research and interaction. The unit’s goal is to reach out and give 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 appealing to 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 theatre’s productions for the benefit of teachers.

In January 2011 the theatre’s former restaurant reopened as the FNT Club, transformed into a late-evening entertainment spot. The space was 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. This year the FNT has participated in an exchange with CEAD (Centre des auteurs dramatiques) in Montreal.  Finnish authors Antti Hietala, Kati Kaartinen and E. L. Karhu will have their work presented at the Dramaturgy in Dialogue festival, and the FNT will be presenting work by Quebec authors. The theatre’s cultural exchange also includes tours and collaboration abroad.