Tampere is a quiet university city with beautiful brick buildings erected in its industrial era, broad streets, trams, buses as well as bike lanes that run along the Tammerkoski rapids which flow from Lake Näsijärvi to Lake Pyhäjärvi and provide hydro-electric power for the city ever since it became a hub for industry in the nineteenth century. It is a 90-minute train ride north of Helsinki and is known as the theatre capital of Finland, in part because it hosts the annual Tampere Theatre Festival which began in 1968 as a major art event. Tampere boasts over a dozen active theatres.
The 2023 theatre festival ran from 7 to 13 August and featured nearly 300 performances, more than half of which were Finnish and in the Off-theatre festival. Its main and international performances included the Estonian performance It Stays As It Is, Australian theatre company Back to Back’s film of their latest performance called Shadow, the devised Pudota (Letting Go) by Finnish playwright-director Heini Junkkaala, the ‘performed lecture’ Lonely, Lonely, Oh So Lonely by Canadian James Long, and the mime Flesh by the Belgium company Cie Still Life. This article discusses these five performances.
Tampere Festival also hosted the Finnish-language play Nokia which used no surtitles. I am therefore not writing about this play, although its description of the development of the Nokia phone in the small city of Nokia situated just outside of Tampere is naturally a subject of great interest to myself and the many others whose first mobile phones were Nokias.
I also do not cover Ruukun sirpaleita (Pottery Shards), called “a documentary performance about exclusion” which is a choreographed staging of narratives told by people who have recently left prison and are encountering difficulties assimilating into society.
The executive director of the Tampere Theater Festival, Hanna Rosendahl, has said (in an interview as an adjunct to this article) that even if there was no specific theme to the 2023 festival, it is clear that the majority of the productions deal in some way with a sense of loneliness that has been affecting the mood of the Finnish people ever since Covid-19 forced them to live in solitary confinement and which has not yet been overcome.
It Stays As It Is.
Photo credit: Axel Hörhager.
It Stays As It Is is a brilliant experimental production that asks the audience to look at itself as a community of people who each have an individual perspective but who form a like-minded group. In this manner it invites us in the audience to neglect feelings of loneliness and become aware of one another. Somewhat philosophical in nature, the play by Estonian actors associated with the Kanuti Gildi performing arts centre in Tallinn, tricks the audience into accepting a performance in their midst and in their audience-designated space. In what he refers to as “broken English” the prominent Estonian actor Juhan Ulfsak – one of a cast of three male performers – informs the spectators-to-be gathered in the foyer of the Teatterimonttu theatre that we must sit on only those seats that are open. We will ruin the show if we occupy any of the seats in the auditorium that have been snapped shut.
Of course, this led me and many others to conclude that we were going to experience actors using the auditorium or invading our space in some by now traditional way. How wrong we were!
After entering and taking a seat in the first row, I was bemused to see a solid greyish wall of painted rectangular planks before my eyes. It separates the audience area from the stage in its entirety. The boards stretch to the ceiling and have been nailed into place: I am hoping that this is some kind of new-fangled curtain that will slide sideways or somehow disappear when the performance finally begins. Well, this is never to happen. We are treated to a series of drum beats and the rumble of cymbals, and Ulfsak informs us that we are going to stare at the wall for a while. Then he and his companion Eero Epner, a playwright and screenwriter, begin a conversation with each sitting in his own audience seat and a good way apart.
It Stays As It Is is so rich with metaphors about positions in space (the auditorium, one’s living space, by extension the globe and the universe) and one’s destiny that I feel it is only fair to describe the entire performance in as much detail as possible.
The actors tell us about all the things that will stay as they are: that we are facing forward, that the seats we occupy will be ours until the very end, that we are staring at a wall which has the colour grey, that we have a ceiling crisscrossed with lighting rigs (that could fall) above us, that the auditorium has only one entrance/point of egress, that there is a window (not that I could see, not a genuine window, just a kind of fake window in the eves with a semi-transparent plastic cover over it) in the space that will not be removed or altered. They enter into an elaborate discourse on each of us having good neighbours – this immediately made me think of the troubled relationship that both Estonia and Finland have with Russia – and that depending on where we were located we would have a singular perspective on the entire space we collectively inhabit.
They say that those in the first row will experience claustrophobia with our noses just inches from the wall. I could vouch for that. Those in the uppermost row feel superior, aloof from the action. Those in the second row are in a privileged position. The actors know this because each of them has sat down in every seat in the auditorium to ascertain the perspective it gives them. There is only one ideal seat in the entire auditorium, the very first seat in the front row closest to the stairs that we all came down to enter the auditorium. Why? Because it is nearest to the exit and permits the least involvement within the space of the audience area.
The conversation continues with narratives about the apartments these actors lived in with their families in Tallinn while growing up. Ulfsak said he lived in an old “Soviet block style” apartment house on the second floor and was convinced that it was the best floor to live on because it was just as easy to get in and out as the first floor and yet you had a view onto the street below and passers-by could not look in through the windows. He believed his family being assigned housing on the second floor suggested that they were somehow superior to the first-floor residents who, moreover, included a drunkard who was often in trouble with the police and who gave loud night-time parties.
The most important things about housing for these Estonian actors is having a view and accessing sunshine. We are told that as an adult, Epner lived in a penthouse with so much sunshine that he couldn’t escape it seeping into all the corners of his apartment until he installed shutters.
But Epner’s dream is to own a home of his own, a villa. And so he eventually bought a bit of land close to Tallinn in the countryside. He brought in an architect to design the house but hadn’t enough money to build it. Years go by, and he came there from time to time to mow the grass and sit and imagine what his house would be like when it was finally built. When eventually he did manage to begin construction, he built it himself from wood planks, putting sideways beams where each window would be and sitting behind that opening to look out and imagine the view. The house has 14 windows, 14 views. One window looks onto a road down which visitors would arrive, but none ever come.
These actors informed us that solitude is one of those things that is going to stay as it is. Rosendahl says in her interview that the Finnish people are melancholic, and this would appear to be a trait the Estonians share with them. The actors spoke in a disingenuous tone, very offhand. Their accents did not distort the English words although their vocabulary was less precise than a native speaker’s would have been. But these singular philosophical and metaphorical comments were soon to gain in dramatic intensity.
We are told about methods for marking one’s ‘territory’ by leaving one’s body odour on a seat or by indicating that a seat is occupied by leaving an article of clothing lying on it. Ulfsak begins to shed his clothes, strewing socks on one seat and his trousers on a row lower down. Eventually he sheds even his black underwear. There seemed to be no dramatic function for his total nudity, and Epner commented that nudity is by now very common in performances.
At this point, the metaphor of space and position zoomed passed the national and into the global, even galactic. Nude Ulfsak told us about our position in the solar system by slapping bits of sticky note onto the wall hemming us in. He said we’d gone to the moon and sent machines to Mars which transmitted back to earth pictures of rocks. Rocks are good things, we see them in cemeteries and each of us has the luxury of setting up our own stone with our birthdate on it and going about our lives until the day comes when we can go live in the cemetery and our death date will then be carved on the stone.
Now a third actor, who seemed to be a member of the audience, Mart Kangro, becomes involved. He drags a standing lamp to the far end of row three and plugs it in. The houselights go off. Ulfsak has placed a sticky note over his eyes and he comes sliding along the area between the rows. Kangro carries onto the audience area large panels identical to the ones nailed into the wall blocking our view of the stage, tries to carry them or slide them along the area between the rows, appears to stumble and almost falls … audience members help him to a minimal extent by raising their arms above their heads. By now, the lamp is off, and for one uncomfortable half-minute at the close of the production the houselights flicker on and off – staying off once for just long enough to create a sense of panic among us audience members who are suddenly collectively plunged into total darkness, prompting us to realize that our sense of security is very fragile.
The play closes with the actors reiterating the list of those things that will never change, beginning with our relative position in the space in relation to all the others and concluding with the grey colour of the wall.
The experimental nature of this piece and its extraordinary originality were rightfully applauded. We were treated to a discourse on the audience as living space and as a metaphor for all the differences there are between us as individuals that cannot be overcome. Lonely is as lonely does.
Shadow is a film of the theatre piece The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes that was produced by Back to Back, a theatre company in Victoria, Australia, that is composed of actors with intellectual disabilities – or neurodiversity, to use the term Sarah, one of the company, insists on. The storyline is developed by three of them, Simon, Scott and Sarah. Sarah has difficulties producing speech due to a head injury, Scott is high functioning autistic with speech impediments, and Simon weaves between periods of articulateness and confusion. There is also a mentally handicapped character, Mark, whose propensity for inappropriate touching and insatiable hunger are sources of humour. There is also one neurotypical actor who plays the role of a TV reporter, the remaining actors being a silent group who witness the events as they unfold. Shadow demonstrates the importance of inclusiveness even if the actors claim it is ostensibly about the danger of Artificial Intelligence.
Filming Shadow in rehearsal.
Photo credit: Tao Weis.
In effect, the dramatic framing device is that Simon is the mayor and has called a meeting of the townspeople – all the other actors – to discuss Artificial Intelligence. Actions and intentions are reversed continually, and ultimately the actors make their point: if they seem second best to “normal” persons, then just wait till AI takes over the world. Then, “normal” people will become second best.
The three actors, especially Sarah who speaks slowly but articulately and who fights for her right to equality, are fierce and brave. They prove that they can triumph over their own forms of mental challenges to function as actors. However, there is in my mind a grey area as to the ethics of performing in the case of Mark whose character is a source of humour because of his restricted self-awareness.
Attendees at the festival included directors and trainers for two Finnish theatre groups composed of disabled persons, Helsinki’s DuvTeatern and a Tampere group run by Riikka Papunen. They participated in a talk after Shadow ended. To them, it is essential to empower handicapped people who wish to perform by giving them acting training and in the case of the Tampere actors, by making sure that disabled actors are given jobs and contracts with local professional theatres that are fair.
Photo credit: Jeff Busby.
Theatre is no exception to the dictum “learning by doing”, but it is not clear why Pudota (Letting Go) was given a professional performance in its present state. Possibly it is because it is the third play in a trilogy “written and directed by Heini Junkkaala and produced by the Finnish National Theatre”. Junkkaala is a playwright in residence at the national theatre, and her earlier plays in the trilogy deal with inclusion. However, this particular play about unsuccessful hormone treatments causing a woman to let go of her dream of becoming a mother would have benefited from more extensive workshop development before being toured.
There are two characters in Letting Go, the first being a 42-year-old woman nicknamed Bundle (played by the actress Nelly Juulia Kärkkäinen), who comes to terms with the saddening fact that despite having spent years (and a fortune) on infertility treatment she will never have a baby. The other character is Bundle’s mother. In this production, the mother is Kärkkäinen’s biological mother who is not an actress: Gitta Oksanen.
Photo credit: Heidi Piiroinen.
The fault starts there. The most important relationship in this drama is not the one between daughter and mom but between those who face the future together: wife and husband. We miss seeing Bundle’s husband onstage. After all, he is the other person in the couple and has been going through a similar harrowing experience since he must also participate if at a distance in the fertility treatment process and he too shares a sense of bereavement when his wife has repeated miscarriages.
Both women act well, but the mother’s presence seems to be needed so that the daughter has someone to whom she can tell her story. And why it is important that the mother is indeed the ‘real’ mother of the actress playing Bundle is not clear. They talk in platitudes. Bundle apologizes for not being able to give her mother a grandchild. Gitta points out that the loss is much greater for the daughter who yearns to be a mother herself.
The scenic mechanisms that advance the action involve the actors using white sheets as framing devices or as garments and white tea towels curved into shapes to represent the baby that will never materialize or a dog that is adopted as a substitute.
Emotions are suppressed in this production, probably because it is a devised script which is “based on the writings, interviews and improvisations” of the playwright and the two actresses. Even Finnish women in the audience told me they felt alienated from the action on stage; I had asked them, wondering if there were cultural references in the drama which I did not understand or was unable to grasp using the translation App provided by the theatre to read the English subtitles from my mobile phone.
The true dramatic engine to the play is the under-explored subtext that only gradually emerges: the medical centre giving the daughter fertility treatments for five years must have known she has a pre-existing medical condition, endometriosis, which seriously reduces the chance of bringing a foetus to term. For the script to be dramatically focused, Bundle ought to have acted out feelings of fury towards the doctors who exploited her instead of falling into depression and perpetual sadness. That she as a patient accepts the role of victim and internalizes blame might possibly be a reflection on a general belief that the Finnish birth-to-grave welfare state is untouchable – along the lines of “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.” But that is merely speculation.
Lonely Lonely Oh So Lonely
James Long who presented an hour-long lecture performance on the subject of loneliness in Finland at the Milavida Museum in Tampere drew one conclusion: we are all going to die alone, and we all share that truth. This motivates us to put up with what he calls “the inconvenience of other people.”
The talk began with Long describing his adolescence on his parents’ horse farm in Canada and how he “just revel(ed) in the feeling of being alone.” Clearly, he does not associate loneliness with negative feelings though it would have been helpful if he had differentiated between loneliness, feeling alone, isolation, and solitude to see if these different states elicit differing emotions.
Next, Long compares Canada and Finland. Just over a third (39%) of Canadians accept power differences in their society as opposed to 33% in Finland; 80% percent of Canadians value independence and 63% do so in Tampere. This leads him to conclude that Finns “take better care of each other but don’t push too hard” against the dictates they have been told are absolute.
Vilma Sippola performing at the train station in connection with James Long.
Photo credit: Axel Hörhager.
Long avoids casting judgement, and so that is the extent of his comparisons. He is keener on finding universal attitudes towards loneliness. He concludes that loneliness is “a disconnect between what you expect and what you get.” The people he interviewed in Tampere during the week preceding his show all identify their own “most lonely” place in the city – one a bench in the countryside where the person goes to mediate on a recently failed relationship, another a church where a father goes to gain comfort despite not having talked with his son for six years due to an ongoing bitter quarrel. They could be citizens anywhere; seeking solace in religion or in nature is universal behaviour.
Long, who is a professor in his home country, acted as a mentor in a Tampere university theatre department to graduate students who stage loneliness during the festival in short performance pieces. One of the most popular is a piece that mirrors the simultaneous co-existence of everyone forced into isolation during the Covid years.
A young actress from a university theatre department performs all the rituals of an ordinary day during 33 hours in the Tampere train station. She mimics Tampere citizens in cooking blood sausages, changes her clothing and wigs and facial hair, eats, drinks water, prepares to sleep, and wakens without paying any attention to passers-by. She lives in her own bubble yet is continually in the public eye. It is a powerful piece that dramatizes how loneliness goes hand in hand with withdrawal from interacting with others. In the pandemic, interaction was forbidden; this piece reminds us of that painful fact even if is the performer’s own protocol that calls for her to ignore those who stop to watch her.
Backdrop for Lonely Lonely Oh So Lonely.
Photo credit: Axel Hörhager.
Flesh is an ensemble of four actors – Muriel Legrand, Jonas Wertz, Sophie Linsmaux and Aurelio Mergola. They are from Wallonia, the French-speaking region of Belgium. This production is a collection of four complex mimes that tell all-too-human stories of grief, disgust, delusion, and jealousy; they are well observed recreations of human behaviour at exceptional moments and are wry comments on our contemporary life. Also, they are sad and funny, often simultaneously.
I suspect Flesh as a name derives from Hamlet’s soliloquy: “O, that this too too solid flesh would melt / Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!” Human instinct always gets the better of the characters in these mimes; they are perpetually embarrassing themselves.
Each of the mimes is set with props on a bare black stage, and when it ends a black curtain is drawn around the performance area. The first mime is a tender piece about a young man who is helped by a nurse to put on sterile clothing so as to attend the deathbed of his father. The nurse is gentle and respectful; she presses wet cotton to the lips of the rasping, dying man to relieve him as much as she can. Then, she departs. The son’s mobile phone, wrapped inside a sterile plastic bag, rings, and in his oh too too human compulsion to answer the call he tears off his sterile gloves and rips open the bag and – just a ring too late – pulls out the phone. At this moment, his father dies. Silence. The young man weeps, pulls all the wires off his father’s body and scoops him up, out of the bed. In a final pieta, he holds the dead man in his arms.
Photo credit: Hubert Amiel.
Equally clever if frightening, the second mime is about vanity. A young man has had a beauty operation, a face-lift probably. His girlfriend is permitted to unwrap the bandage covering his face, and oh, what a handsome man he is. He preens, he struts. They embrace. In so doing, the skin on one of his cheeks peels back. She is horrified, refuses to hand him the mirror. The nightmare escalates as he becomes more and more disfigured, and she attempts to escape.
Virtual reality is the trickster in the third mime. A young woman excitedly visits a shop and purchases a virtual reality trip. She goes into various stages of ecstasy as she plays the role of Rose in The Titanic Adventure. She eventually reaches out and accidentally touches the flesh and blood arm of the bored young man from the shop who has been assigned to watch over her as she enacts lovemaking, sinking, drowning – but he pulls off her virtual reality goggles, and she staggers off-stage like a drunk, not particularly happy any longer.
Photo credit: Hubert Amiel.
The fourth mime (illustrated above) dramatizes familial jealousy and is extraordinarily funny and recognisable. Four siblings, not particularly friends (one sister gives the other a half-hearted bisou, for instance) have gathered to share the ashes of their cremated mother. Rituals, solemnity, tears. Four containers are ceremoniously set up, a kitchen ladle is proffered, each takes one helping from the urn until it is the turn of the fourth sibling – they are all grown up, don’t forget. He takes one ladle of ashes, then a second, a third, a fourth. Pandemonium ensues. They fight, tear each other’s faces, hair, they kick, strangle – mom’s ashes are strewn everywhere but that does not stop them. But then one of the two sisters who is pregnant starts to give birth. Her siblings rush to her side, ready to help her as she cries out with pain. Water flows from her body, but that does not hinder the others from touching her. A happy ending!
The Tampere Theatre Festival, its international offerings at least, is a potpourri of contemporary productions that emphasize inclusiveness and tolerance of loneliness. The overwhelming need to draw attention to present-day concerns of the Finnish people – extra-political ones, at that – means that Finnish classics such as Veijo Meri’s 1967 Uhkapeli (The Gamble), which would require a Regietheater approach to bring it in line with contemporary events, are just not being staged in Finland presently. If the 2023 festival is anything to go by, it would appear that the country is expanding into a cultural future that is not linked to tradition.