“More than ever, the Finnish National Theatre is planning for the future. This year the government has granted the theatre a planning budget for the full-scale refurbishment of the theatre’s Small Stage, which was built in 1954. The planning process will take place over the next couple of years. This renovation, together with other new initiatives, is geared towards taking the theatre’s activities to a new level, expanding and developing its artistic ambitions and expertise.” Mika Myllyaho, Director of the Finnish National Theatre, August 2017
This year, Finland celebrates a hundred years of political independence. In honour of the nation’s centenary, the Finnish National Theatre has commissioned a new work by Pirkko Saisio to launch the autumn season on the Main Stage. 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. The play, which opens in September directed by Laura Jäntti, explores Finland’s relationship with the outside world across the ages. This autumn also sees the long-awaited opening of new play for children on the Main Stage. The Stalactite Case, written and directed by Laura Ruohonen, promises 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. The show opens in November.
Two new Finnish works will also open on the Small Stage this season. Kjell Westö’s recent award-winning novel Mirage 38, adapted for the stage by Michael Baran and directed by Mikaela Hasán, opens in September. Set in Helsinki in 1938, the story 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. Also on the Small Stage, a new play by Kirsikka Saari and Jenni Toivoniemi opens in November, directed by Mari Rantasilta. 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 ambitions. Another new Finnish play, written by Okko Leo and directed by Aleksis Meaney, also opens in November on the Willensauna Stage. Dark Room is a three-hander about the standards and responsibilities of art. If a press photo of a war zone is carefully staged, is it less worthy, less artistic and possibly even less moral than a chance take? These are questions photographer Hannes finds himself having to consider when his sister and father discover he has manipulated the light, setting and circumstances of his best shot.
Alongside these many Finnish works, the programme includes a number of international modern classics. Anne Rautiainen directs her adaptation of Mihail Bulgakov’s best-known work, Master and Margarita. 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. The show opens in September on the Willensauna Stage.
Another interpretation of a modern classic novel, Thomas Bernhard’s Alte Meister, also marks a new collaboration between the Finnish National Theatre and the Helsinki Art Museum (HAM). Minna Leino adapts and directs the work, which opens in the Museum’s gallery space in September. 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.
This year’s international programme also includes another modern German-language classic, Thomas Mann’s celebrated novel Der Tod in Venedig. Adapted and directed by Michael Baran, this highly praised production opened last spring on the Small Stage. As the story’s ageing protagonist follows the object of his obsession through Venice’s magical yet cholera-ridden streets, he feverishly ponders the nature of beauty, truth and longing. This two-hander, accompanied by live cello music, is a touching elegy to a vanishing world.
As Finland celebrates a hundred years of national independence, the Finnish National Theatre also ponders the meaning of ‘nationality’ for those whose lives have been uprooted. Other Home is a production which brings together artists who have entered Finland as asylum seekers with artists who were born here. A documentary based theatre performance, Other Home addresses questions of home and integration. What does home mean to a newly arrived refugee, and what does it mean to a Finnish national, who has always felt at home? What sort of home does art represent? How do you make it back home if all the doors are shut and there is no place of refuge? And what if going home means certain death? The show is devised and directed by Jussi Lehtonen and opens in November. It is part of the Touring Stage’s artistic programme of socially engaged theatre, developed through interviews and workshops. The Touring Stage’s mission is to raise awareness of issues affecting marginalised sectors of society.
Many successful shows have carried over from the previous season and a number have also returned by popular demand. Two adaptations of Finnish novels from last season are still playing to full houses. Tuomas Kyrö’s Happy Times, Mr Grumpy, adapted and directed by Mika Myllyaho, can be seen on the Small stage and Miika Nousiainen’s Root Therapy, adapted and directed by Aleksis Meaney has transferred to the Main Stage. 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, William Shakespeare’s Richard III, translated by Matti Rossi, also continues its highly popular run. This brutal tale of sinister ambition and betrayal has been given a surprisingly playful and atmospheric interpretation by Jussi Nikkilä, without losing any of its fierce intensity. The work has been adapted for a cast of five by Anna Viitala. Pasi Lampela’s two-hander Granada, also continues on the Willensauna Stage. Lampela’s play, diected by the author, traces a gently comic, yet poignant encounter between ex-lovers in an Andalusian hotel room.
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. On the Willensauna Stage, there is one more chance to see Juha Jokela’s interpretation of British author Duncan Macmillan’s Lungs, which has been touring successfully. A couple struggles to live up to the responsibilities of both parenthood and the future of the planet. The play gives voice to a generation all too aware of its carbon footprint.
Iida Vanttaja and Antti Kaski bring back their puppet show for adults to the Omapohja studio: Meeting Places for the Vanished is a darkly comical study of people marginalized into obscurity. Also returning to the Omapohja Stage, Veera Kiiskinen’s Assimilated Theories of Lovedissects the anatomy of marital relationships. For children, Ella Pyhältö and Helena Vierikko return with their show for the very young, based on Finnish classic comic stories entitled Hölmöläiset. The show is performed in the lobby of the Main Stage.
A new show for children will also open in the lobby of the Main Stage in October. Oscar Wilde’s fairy tale The Happy Prince has been recreated in verse by Eppu Nuotio and music by Maija Ruuskanen. The show is performed by puppet-master Juha Laukkanen.
Amongst other activities, an innovative project entitled Black Box, which began last year, continues by popular demand. The project brings journalism to the Small Stage for a series in which journalists present previously unpublished material and reveal the stories that have touched them the most. Audience outreach work continues with a new 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 is Maunula and Love. Moreover, this year the theatre’s educational work 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 next 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.