“Founded in 1872, the Finnish National Theatre celebrates its 150th anniversary this year. This is a venerable age for a Finnish institution. During this time, Finland evolved from being a Principality under Russian rule, through civil and world war, into the independent, democratic nation and welfare society that it is today. Throughout the many events of the last hundred and fifty years, the Finnish National Theatre has been there, interpreting its past as well as its present, preserving tradition and creating new forms, offering its audience the best in dramatic art through thousands of performances, each one unique. Over the last ten years as Director of the FNT, I have truly come to appreciate having such a valuable heritage passed down to us from previous generations. The theatre is currently undergoing a major renovation of the section of its premises dating from the 1950s. This work links the past with the future. What we do today will be passed on to future generations, enabling continuity.”
Mika Myllyaho, January 2022
The Finnish National Theatre has always held a mirror up to contemporary Finnish society as well as bringing its audiences important currents in global debate, and this mission is powerfully reflected in this anniversary year’s programming. The spring season opens on the Main Stage with a new interpretation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, in a translation by Matti Rossi, adapted by Samuli Reunanen and Aina Bergroth. Olavi Uusivirta as Hamlet and Fanni Noroila as Ophelia are the young generation faced with the legacy of a world out of joint, an experience they address through music composed by Timo Kämäräinen. Samuli Reunanen also directs. Later in the season, a joint production between the FNT and Red Nose Company looks at the life and works of one of Finland’s most important national figures. Entitled Aleksis Kivi, the play is a fond assessment of this classic author of monumental stature. Viewed as the cornerstone of Finnish literature, Kivi’s work is also seen as marking the birth of Finnish language theatre in 1869. The show has been created by Eva Buchwald, Tuukka Vasama, Timo Ruuskanen and Linda Wallgren.
Also on the Main Stage, two compact plays by Caryl Churchill, Escaped Alone and Kill, will open in late spring, directed by Minna Leino. Churchill is one of Britain’s most important contemporary playwrights, who at the age of 83 still has plenty to say about the world we live in. Escaped Alone portrays a deceptively ordinary conversation in the afternoon sunshine, punctuated by sinister undertones and dystopian visions. Kill is a playlet which examines human nature and the role of the Gods through Greek tragedy.
These new shows will play in repertory with last season’s popular openings. Docents, written and directed by Juha Jokela, is a keen study of the power-play at work in a university environment. In this sharp psychological drama, Jokela scrutinizes the state of present-day academia and its capacity to pursue scientific independence in a climate of political tension and economic downturn. Minna Leino’s adaptation of Miika Nousiainen’s popular novel Facelift is a comedy of mores for the contemporary age. Lonely people search for love and everyone is worried about their image. The humour is poignant and the characters sympathetic. Fast-paced, plot-driven and visually dynamic, the play is directed by Irene Aho with music by Timo Hietala.
As announced in 2019, the 1950’s wing of the theatre building is currently undergoing a long overdue, major renovation for the next few years. The Small Stage and Willensauna Stage are therefore closed for the time being, and the FNT has taken on temporary premises in the Vallila district of Helsinki. This spring’s opening on the Vallila Stage is Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust in a new adaptation by Eva Buchwald and Anne Rautiainen, directed by Rautiainen and with music composed by Marzi Nyman. When frustrated Professor Faust dabbles with the dark arts in his quest for absolute knowledge and eternal life, he is drawn into Mephistofeles’ sphere of influence and faces a bigger dilemma than he bargained for. Faust’s classic pact with the devil and doomed love for Greta is given richly poetic, visual and musical expression in Rautiainen’s interpretation.
Last autumn’s openings also continue their run on the Vallila Stage. Molière’s Miser, translated by Arto af Hällström and directed by Vesa Vierikko, is a classic study not only of avarice but also the generation gap. The eponymous Miser struggles to hang on to every penny of his fortune as he plots both his own and his children’s marriages. The younger generation, driven by love, must counter-scheme to fulfil their own romantic goals. The author is definitely on their side. In Vierikko’s interpretation the play is a glorious concoction of outrageous make-up, wigs and costumes, highlighting the ridiculous. Blindspot, by Susanna Kuparinen and Jari Hanska, examines the pressures of daily life during the pandemic, focusing on the grey areas in politics, media reporting and social reality. This documentary-based satire is directed by Kuparinen with music by Kerkko Koskinen. Mika Myllyaho’s Hair Salon, directed by the author, is a serious comedy about three feisty women struggling to make a living and lead decent lives despite the odds stacked against them in a world where the toilet repeatedly backs up, as if to remind them about the quality and substance of their lives. They don’t give up without a fight however, and even if they are forced to compromise, they find a way to survive.
On the Omapohja Stage, a new play opens this spring written by Petri Manninen and Janne Reinikainen. Entitled Eternal return, and directed by Reinikainen, the play is a study inspired by the constraints of the pandemic, exploring the bitter enchantment of endless routine.
Other highlights of the season include several joint or touring productions. After a successful visit to the Main Stage last autumn, Punch up! – Resistance and Glitter will play the Vallila Stage this spring. The performance is a fierce variety show filled with the best in drag, stand-up and burlesque. It was created by stand-up comedian and monologuist Juuso Kekkonen, stand-up comedian and performance artist James Loriàn MacDonald and queer drag artist and producer Mira Eskelinen. The show is available for one night only in May and the performance is in English. Teatteri Totti and author Tarja Sandholm bring their view of Finland through a stranger’s eyes, entitled Finland!, to the Omapohja Stage in late spring. Teatteri Totti produces theatre which is accessible to the Deaf community, this production is spoken and signed in Finnish. Music artists SOFA and VERONA will be performing as a double bill, under the auspices of the Ophelia Club, on both the Main Stage and the Vallila Stage on several evenings this spring. SOFA is a hip-hop, rapping duo formed by Sonja Kuittinen and Fanni Noroila, and VERONA comprises actor-singer Maruska Verona, producer Paavo Malmberg and musician Antti Kokkola.
The FNT’s regular collaborations with other theatres also includes Stefano Massini’s Lehman Trilogy, directed by Davide Giovanzana and performed at the TTT Theatre of Tampere this spring. This is a Teatteri Metamorfoosi production in collaboration with the FNT, Espoo Theatre and the TTT Theatre of Tampere.
An evening of journalism has also become a regular feature of the Main Stage in recent years. Black Box is an encounter with reporters from the national newspaper Helsingin Sanomat, who present previously unpublished material and reveal the stories that have touched them the most. There are several Black Box evenings scheduled over the spring.
Last autumn, director Mika Myllyaho announced a new affiliated writer whose work will be presented by the Finnish National Theatre in the coming years. The writer is Ujuni Ahmed, human rights activist who was granted the Finnish pen award for freedom of speech in 2020. Herself of Somali background, Ahmed has specifically spoken out against female genital mutilation, a crime which is difficult to prevent when girls are sent abroad for the procedure. Finnish legislation pertinent to this crime has been improved as a result of her campaign work. She is currently writing a book together with Elina Hirvonen, entitled Letters to girls who think they are alone, due for publication in 2022.
As usual the Theatre’s Touring Stage, run by Artistic Director Jussi Lehtonen, continues to provide a number of shows for touring to community care homes and prisons. During the summer of 2020, the Touring Stage found new ways of reaching their public safely during the pandemic. It took its performances outdoors, into the yard areas of care homes, maintaining physical distance. This practice continued in the summer of 2021 with its latest production, which was commissioned to celebrate the Touring Stage’s tenth anniversary. Written and directed by Juha Mustanoja and entitled Diplomats, the show is a lively comedy, full of song and dance, about human perfection, or at least about those who believe they can find perfection in themselves. This and several other shows are available for touring. For more details contact the producer firstname.lastname@example.org.
Audience outreach work, co-ordinated by Pirjo Virtanen, pursues its long-term project involving residents of a given Helsinki suburb. The project includes multidisciplinary workshops and performances, as well as podcasts. In 2022, a new project will begin with the areas of Pihlajamäki and Pihlajisto. The Outreach programme also organises a number of discussions, events and workshops related to the theatre’s main programme.
The FNT’s youth theatre group, Kantti, founded in 2019 under the leadership of director Satu Linnapuomi, also continues its activities, despite the setbacks suffered last year because of COVID-19. Last autumn the group successfully performed a new play, Must Share, written by Eira Virekoski and directed by Satu Linnapuomi. This season members of Kantti are involved with the Faust production.
During the pandemic, when the theatre was forced to close its doors, the FNT used the opportunity to discover new ways of reaching its audience through digital means. It established a new Sound Channel providing free access to a range of conversations, podcasts, poetry readings and drama recordings.
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. Unfortunately, for the period of the renovation, the FNT Club venue is closed.
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.
Today, the Finnish National Theatre is on the threshold of a new era. The theatre is facing numerous changes as the modern section of the building, dating from 1954, undergoes a major renovation which is scheduled for completion in late 2023. While the Main Stage and the Omapohja Studio continue to function normally, both the Small Stage and the Willensauna are temporarily closed. For the period of the renovation, the Finnish National Theatre is also operating in a new space located in Helsinki’s Vallila district. “It is exciting for the FNT to find a new home in this growing and vibrant sector of the city,” Director Mika Myllyaho comments on this latest development.