”Over the past ten years the Finnish National Theatre has totally reimagined itself, yet it has remained committed to its high artistic profile. The theatre has received critical acclaim and several awards, such as the Theatre of the Year Award in 2012. Mostly recently, in 2018, it was recognized by the Disabled Rights Organisation Kynnys for ‘breaking boundaries and collaborating with various theatre practitioners and companies who give voice to those sectors of society that are perceived as marginal.’ This proves that our artistic mission – to be an open and inclusive theatre – is in touch with contemporary values.”
Mika Myllyaho, Director, January 2019
This spring, new productions highlight both public and private aspects of society. On the Main Stage, Esa Leskinen and Sami Keski-Vähälä’s Eleventh Hour, directed by Leskinen, is a satirical study of power, money and democracy. Western society has become used to seeing democracy as one of its founding principles. Yet as the market economy increasingly drives government policy, democracy is paradoxically being eroded. Combining documentary material, economic analysis, music and visual theatre, this cabaret-style show paints a picture of our times and examines our prospects for the future. The play opens in early March.
Several new plays focus on more personal drama. Michael Baran directs Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage in the Omapohja Studio. The play traces a couple’s relationship over ten years, as it evolves through love, betrayal and divorce. This modern classic is a timeless study of the cruel and tender nature of marital bonds. On the Willensauna Stage, a new play written and directed by Pasi Lampela is about an ice-hockey player at the top of his game who is suddenly unable to perform. The Frog King examines fear of failure, and the pressure of having to live up to expectations. Both shows open in February. Also opening on the Willensauna Stage, British author Duncan MacMillan’s play Every Brilliant Thing is a gently humorous monologue about depression and the shadow of suicide. The monologue is performed by two actors who alternate in the role. Mari Lehtonen and Ilja Peltonen also direct each other.
A new play for school-age children opens on the Small Stage. Mauri Kunnas’ best-selling book A Doghill’s History of Finland has been adapted by Eva Buchwald and directed by Irene Aho. The show presents 300 years of Finnish history during the period of Swedish rule. From the reign of Kustaa Vaasa in the mid-sixteenth century until 1809 when Finland was annexed to Russia, the play portrays a wealth of royal and other historical figures, as well as scenes from the lives of ordinary folk.
Many successful productions from last autumn continue their run. The moral, philosophical and spiritual dimensions of human existence are explored 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. 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 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. Pajtim Statovci’s highly successful debut novel, My Cat Yugoslavia, also continues on the Willensauna Stage. 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.
This season also presents a number of collaborations and touring productions. Leena Tamminen’s new drama Fellow Travellers, opens on the Main Stage in late March. The play is directed by Kari Paukkunen and created by Paukkunen’s production company Kulttuurikone in collaboration with the FNT and the TTT Theatre of Tampere, where the show will also play next autumn. Fellow Travellers portrays a touching encounter on a train between two people who seem worlds apart, but who gradually find common ground.
Actor and mime artist Marc Gassot brings his show Lion – The Weird and Magical Abracadabra Circus Show to the Small Stage for performances in January and May. The show’s title says it all: a combination of mime, circus, magic, and general weirdness, Gassot delights his audience with an absurd take on iconic horror imagery. The show is directed by Sanna Silvennoinen and accompanied by Kari Sinkkonen’s live music. It has been produced in collaboration with Circo Aereo, the Turku City Theatre and the TTT Theatre of Tampere. Other collaborations include Ari-Pekka Lahti and Tiina Luoma’s Road to Konya, Riika Kunelius’ 100% Cotton, and for children, Juha Laukkanen’s puppet version of Selma Lagerlöf’s The Wonderful Adventures of Nils.
Visiting productions include Nutcase written and performed by Amanda Palo and directed by Olga Palo in May, and Sandra by Heidi Köngas in February. Both plays explore the theme of violence from a woman’s perspective, in very different contexts. The Red Nose Company present their comedy of power Babylon on the Small Stage in February. The physical Theatre Company Gravity and Other Myths perform their show Backbone on the Main Stage in May. Ruusa Harlin and Julia Lappalainen bring their controversial piece Turkka Dies to the Willensauna Stage in May. There will also be a chance in May to attend open rehearsals of Third Practice, a new piece of choreography by Tero Saarinen to music by Claudio Monteverdi. All visiting productions will play for two performances. Among other musical performances this season, Timo Tuominen, a long-standing member of the FNT’s own company, gives his interpretation of Jacques Brel’s songs for a single night on the Main Stage, entitled Brel Final Spécial.
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 On the Road and Voices. The first, based on various poems by Finnish authors, focuses on mothers and children. The second is part of Uniarts Helsinki’s ArtsEqual initiative, and it involves creating a number of performances with students at the Theatre Academy and the Sibelius Academy.
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 continues with its long-term project involving residents of a given Helsinki suburb. This year, a fresh three-year period will begin, this time engaging with the areas of Kannelmäki and Malminkartano. The project’s multidisciplinary workshops and performances are devised and directed by Eveliina Heinonen.
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 welcomes two French directors to work on productions which will open in the autumn. Pascal Rambert will direct his passionate two-hander La Clôture de l’amour on the Small Stage and Charles Gonzales will direct Jean Cocteau’s modern classic monologue La voix humaine. Both plays examine the nature of love and the pain of loss.