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Raising the Dead and Staging the New

Democracy and Identity at Finland’s Tampere Theatre Festival

The relationship between industry and nature is written into the topography of Tampere, Finland. Occupying a narrow isthmus between two of the country’s thousands of lakes, the city center is clustered with the red-brick chimneys of disused power plants and fabric, paper, and metal mills of its wealthy industrial past. Tampere’s rich theatre tradition is a product of that workerist history, which is why it—rather than the Helsinki-Espoo megalopolis—hosts the Nordic region’s largest international theatre festival.

Tampere is the hybrid among European festivals. The main program of thirteen Finnish and seven international productions is a sort of expanded version of Germany’s Theatertreffen, while the accompanying OFF festival of thirty-five independent productions represents a bonsai Edinburgh Fringe. Other components—a performance tent in the market square and small performances in cafes and restaurants—offer the convivial, municipal vibe of nuits blanches. Venues sprawled across the city provide a cross-section of the local scene. Downtown, the grungy concert venue Pakkahuone, originally a customs hall, is transformed by a seating rake into a theatre, while, further down Tampere’s main boulevard, Tanssiteaterri houses contemporary dance and cabaret. Outside the city, Sorin Sirkus hosts the circus performances Finland has elevated into a discrete artform. The main city-center complexes are the Tampere Theatre (TT) and Tampere Workers’ Theatre (TTT), which is the largest and grew out of the workers’ movement in the early twentieth century.

The theme of Tampere 2019, which ran between 5-11 August, was “bravery,” conceived in response to the rise of the far-right in Finland and around the world. Elections this year returned the national populist Finns Party—radicalized in 2017 after its more moderate members split off—as the second-largest party in parliament, just one seat behind the social democrats. A rainbow coalition assembled to keep the Finns from power, although they were already in government under the 2015–17 coalition. The festival performances divided into roughly two groups: those concerned with the collapse of democracy and those interested in identity, gender, race, and sexuality.

tampere, finland city center at night

Tampere, Finland

Raising the Dead: Rituals for a New Theatre

The National Theatre of Ghent’s (NT Ghent) La Reprise – Histoire(s) du Théâtre, directed by its Swiss artistic director, Milo Rau, unites the festival’s two hemispheres. It tells the story of Belgium’s first officially recognized homophobic murder—of a young Muslim man, Ihsane Jarfi, who was beaten to death after leaving a birthday party in Liège in 2012. By inviting members of Jarfi’s community in Liège to bring their lived realities to the stage, and by integrating the process of staging into the production, it raises true-crime to the level of epic. In so doing, La Reprise asks searching questions about the role of theatre in the present moment.

Three members of NT Ghent’s ensemble enact the process of auditioning the non–professional performers, researching Jarfi’s death, and considering the purpose of theatrical representation. The biographies of the performers—professional and non-professional alike—are put to work to reveal not just the racism and homophobia that appear on the surface of Jarfi’s story, but the global phenomenon of post-industrial decline and social isolation that lie beneath it. Retired Sardinian communist Suzy Coco takes on the part of Jarfi’s mother. Out-of-work forklift truck driver and DJ Fabian Leenders plays one of the men convicted of his murder. Leenders observes how precisely the story of the character he plays—unemployed, disillusioned—mirrors his own. Actor Tom Adjibi, who plays Jarfi, observes that as a non-white actor he is “never asked to play a character, only an origin.”

Through its visceral and precise reenactment of Jarfi’s death, La Reprise enacts a return to theatre’s origin in rituals to heal or transform a community. The production understands itself as a ritual for raising the dead, with Jarfi returned to life through the production and again at its end to take his bow. By bringing the lived reality of his death to the stage through the citizens of Liège—which stands in for the wider phenomenon of post-industrial decline—La Reprise ritually intervenes in that reality with the intention of transforming it. By raising the human dead, it hopes also to raise what is dead in theatre—its ritual function.

The festival performances divided into roughly two groups: those concerned with the collapse of democracy and those interested in identity, gender, race, and sexuality.

The connection between social collapse and the need for ritual experience is also present in the National Theatre of Finland’s production of My Cat Yugoslavia, based on the novel by Pajtim Statovci, and exquisitely staged by dramaturg Ewa Buchwald and director Johanna Freundlich at Sorin Sirkus. The bulk of the action takes place on a revolving platform occupying a fraction of the stage and reminiscent of a music box. The revolve is split between the parallel stories of Bekim, a child refugee of the Kosovan war, now a student in Finland, and that of his mother Emine, who, at Bekim’s age, is preparing for marriage to his father. Each scene, the revolve turns to reveal first the functional Finnish design of Bekim’s black-and-white student apartment, and then the red-and-white mountain home of Emine, loaded with the ornamental trappings of the rituals that prepare Kosovan women for marriage. On a smaller revolve nearby, a cast of Frederic Leighton’s Athlete Wrestling a Python (1877) turns to reveal the different faces of desire—vulnerability, ecstasy, rage, and nostalgia.

While Emine’s identity is enclosed by the rituals prescribed by her culture, Bekim is imprisoned by those he invents to manufacture an identity for himself: hook-ups with strangers from the internet, adopting a pet python to confront his phobia, and taking in a lover who happens to be a cat. In Statovici’s magical realist universe, the cat embodies the fully liberated self that Bekim desires to achieve and Finnish culture seems to promise, but also the dark side of Western individualism: brittle, narcissistic, and opportunist. But neither inherited nor self-authored rituals are sufficient to compass the emergent reality Bekim and Emine inhabit: the dissolution of Yugoslavia through war and the collapse of the East-West divide, compressed within the migrant experience. 

two actors onstage

My Cat Yugoslavia. National Theatre of Finland.

The Death of Democracy and the Limits of Discourse

“You cannot trust anything in this world,” Juha Hurme—the Eino-Leino and Finlandia prizewinner—tells me over coffee in a nearby hotel. “There is no truth. There is only discourse. And it’s a discourse performed by lunatics.” He is talking about his production of Peter Weiss’s 1963 play Marat/Sade (made famous in the UK and US by British director Peter Brook). But he is also talking about the world we are in. Marat/Sade is a debate between Sadean individualism and the collectivism represented by French Revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat, whose murder is staged by the inmates of a Napoleonic lunatic asylum. The Marquis de Sade—himself an inmate—directs.

The innovation of Hurme’s production—apart from its superb musical performances—is to stage the impotence of both sides in confronting today’s crises. In the 1960s, the audience was offered a straight choice: individualistic capitalism (represented by de Sade) or the fervid communism of Marat, reflecting Weiss’s own struggles with the ideologies divided by the Berlin Wall. Hurme’s Marat/Sade, however, is situated in today’s climate, where activism, resurgent on both left and right, remains ideologically adrift. Hurme’s production is not so much a plea to return to the center as it is to recover the intellectual power to map the reality that has emerged since the divided twentieth century gave way to more diffuse conflicts. Only then can we address the realities that confront us as a global community: climate change, migration, technology, and the breakdown not just of liberal democracy but the model of the world on which it rests.

That world is now dying. New realities are surging forth and those old structures are incapable of expressing them.

The breakdown of democracy is, in a sense, the revenge of the atavistic forces suppressed or sacrificed in order to build it. The dominant theatre culture is born of Enlightenment thought-structures that produced the industrial landscapes in which its theatres took root, and which has wrought much violence. That culture provided stories to model the world that gave it birth. That world is now dying. New realities are surging forth and those old structures are incapable of expressing them. Hurme’s production describes these limits: dialogue has ceased to function and descended into the chattering of the mad. Rau’s production extends the limits to which existing dramaturgies can be stretched: it stages rituals to liberate something new but does not go as far as articulating it. Although La Reprise has been lauded in British and American press as radically new, its aesthetics are consistent with the German theatre tradition after Brecht.

an actor onstage

Marate/Sade. Photo by Raisa Kilpeläinen.

Staging New Realities

To compass this emerging paradigm, we must look to those realities suppressed or excluded by post-Enlightenment dramaturgies. These are represented at Tampere in the work of Finnish women. Medusa’s Room, written and directed by Saara Turunen, is performed by nameless archetypes nested like Russian dolls in the bodies of actors. Interestingly, since Turunen has won the Finnish National Prize for Literature, its logic is visual and temporal rather than textual. Strange encounters between ambiguous sexes and species are augmented by Georgia O’Keefe paintings, projected onto the rear wall as a commentary on gender and power.

Three female actors invoke ways women perform femininity. One—young, conventionally attractive—effortlessly performs femininity-as-commodity. Another “smiling woman” exhausts herself in the attempt, only to appear deranged to the men she seeks to impress, while the third, a girl in a floral print dress, beholds this all play out with large, sad eyes. A male actor performs the gaunt “lonely woman,” whose reality is the fear that haunts the first three. The women are matched with similarly archetypal nameless men and boys, played by three actors—two male and one female. When the girl is sexually assaulted, a headmaster accepts that apologies should be made, but it is the girl who must apologize. On the page, explained, this sounds pious; onstage, it is magical, strange, and exposes existing dramaturgical models as narrowly male.

Of what I was able to see at Tampere, the work of Finnish women stood out as pointing the way to real aesthetic innovation.

A speech Madonna delivered at the Billboard Women in Music Awards in 2016 provides the motif of Rednose Company’s Babylon, a clown show written by performer Minna Puola. “I always feel better with something hard between my legs,” Madonna said, straddling the microphone stand in a power stance, before continuing: “I stand before you as a doormat. Oh, I mean, as a female entertainer.” The title of Babylon refers to the lust for power that destroyed a biblical civilization, personified in the “scarlet woman,” demoness, and “mother of abominations,” worshipped in modern occultism as Babalon, sacred whore and Earth goddess whose power is rooted in sexuality.

The dialectic between the desire for power—the desire never to be anyone’s doormat—and abject doormattery is the subject of Babylon’s physical excoriation of how shame works to keep people small. Through Trumpian handshakes and Catherine the Great’s tactical murder of her husband, Puola examines the trap people fall into when they seek to go from small to big: by locating power within themselves they deny it to others. Puola’s sidekick Ré, performed with endearing sweetness by Hanne Seppä, becomes the “other” on whom Babylon’s newfound power is exerted. Autobiographical material—parental shaming, struggling to be taken seriously by mediocre male superiors, and sexual assault—is held at a distance to reveal structures of oppression without lapsing into disempowering tales of trauma. Puola explains post-show that clowns achieve directness about unspeakable things by speaking to each other through the audience.

Nora, directed by Alma Lehmuskallio, a specialist in physical theatre who takes over as artistic director of the city theatre of Oulu in 2020, was devised with actors Rosanna Kemppi and Kreeta Salminen. The actors identify within themselves the two characteristics of obedience and revolt that define the protagonist of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. The show circles the question of what it is to prioritize freedom as a woman and asks how much has really changed since the nineteenth century. It is endlessly imaginative. Performers slip fluidly between realities and acting styles, playing manifestations of Nora within themselves and physicalizing Nora’s psychological reality. At one point, Salminen dives under a rug in search of her sexual identity; at another, Kemppi investigates the ways women are not supposed to be onstage by re-enacting violent scenes between Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy in The Revenant. The show ends with Kemppi, puppeteering a futon, taking on the character of a mattress which, she explains, is actually Ibsen’s Nora: after leaving her husband, she is trying out a new identity working as a mattress.

three actors onstage

Medusa's Room. Photo by Aino Nieminen.

Finland’s New Female Theatre

Of what I was able to see at Tampere, the work of Finnish women stood out as pointing the way to real aesthetic innovation. Medusa’s Room has stayed with me most for its bold pursuit of the injunction in Hélène Cixous’ essay, “The Laugh of the Medusa” to find an écriture féminine—a female mode of expression—for theatre. Turunen, Lehmuskallio, Puola, Freundlich, and Buchwald are creating new theatrical languages, finding a female theatre language that is self-articulate. They speak from an artistic position rather than one of mere subject or victim—the trap into which much feminist theatre falls. The difficulty of such work that breaks existing formal molds is that it often eludes the grasp of existing professional and critical apparatuses. It is a testament to the vibrancy o­f Finnish theatre that this work is given space on its national stages and in its international festivals. There is a great deal here for other theatre cultures to learn.

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