The Hangaslahti sauna, about twenty minutes outside the city of Tampere, is a distinctly Finnish model of prudent seclusion and unreserved display. A wooden lodge nestled into a forest of silver birch trees beside a clear water lake, it was built in 1968, renovated in 2006, and now stands as something both reassuringly traditional and sleekly modern. Its smoke sauna is the oldest form of the Finnish invention, but these days it functions more as a safe haven for private parties, corporate clients and business deals where visitors leave their clothes at the door, sweat it out in 85 degree heat and lightly flog each other with damp branches of silver birch. It’s one way of ensuring transparency. Nobody has anything to hide.
At the start of this month, two Irish theatre companies arrived to Hangaslahti shortly after their first appearance at the Tampere Theatre Festival. This was a first. In the international festival’s forty-two-year history there has never been an Irish production. The companies were selected by Jukka-Pekka Pajunen, a member of the festival’s curatorial team, who encountered them via the Irish Theatre Institute’s International Theatre Exchange. The biggest and oldest theatre festival of the Nordic countries, Tampere runs for just one week and Pajunen had spent so much of it entertaining international participants from Finland, Russia, France, Italy and Estonia that he could jokingly refer to Hangaslahti as his office. The three Irish productions selected for the festival – the corporate satire of The Performance Corporation’s Power Point and two recent shows from the multimedia-savvy theatre company Brokentalkers, In Real Time and Silver Stars – hardly represented business as usual, though.
Finland has a familiarity with Irish culture that seems to extend beyond the reach of dramatic export. Most major Irish works have been translated and performed in Finnish theatres – Enda Walsh and Martin McDonagh are particularly popular – and for reasons that are not immediately apparent, RTÉs The Clinic was broadcast on Finnish TV under the title Clarence Street. “This time the island of tales dares to break traditions and find new ways to tell us about life here and now,” proclaimed the programme.
Like any visitors to the sauna, the Irish contingent in Finland had gathered together in a sheltered space where they could reveal themselves and see how they measured up. “Hello Tampere,” said Jessica Kennedy with the same cheery sense of uncertainty that Eurovision emissaries use to announce the voting of their nation’s jury. Kennedy was speaking from Dublin, via broadband, as the protagonist of Brokentalkers’ In Real Time. Initially holding aloft two cut-out shapes of Ireland and Finland she attempted to bridge their distance by gamely interacting with the Finnish performer Miina Maasola, present in the Tampere-talo studio blackbox space, and also with the audience. “According to Wikipedia,” she said approvingly, “Tampere is known as ‘the Manchester of Finland’.” Director Gary Keegan had been unsure about the gag, but it seemed to go down well, as did the show.
The company received a similar response with Silver Stars, its moving and innovative staging of Sean Millar’s musical history of homosexuality in Ireland, largely performed by the men whose personal stories inspired it. In a festival where relatively few productions made deep enquiries into theatrical form, Brokentalkers stood out by probing the medium and method.
“I got the sense that they were trying to introduce their audience to a different approach to storytelling,” Gary Keegan said of the festival’s interest in Irish work. (The festival had also planned to bring over Druid’s production of Enda Walsh’s New Electric Ballroom, Pajunen told me, but could not secure it) “Here people were thrilled by the dramaturgical approach to In Real Time, the way it was constructed. With Silver Stars, several people asked, ‘Was it really them? They really weren’t actors?’ Several people were taken aback by that.”
Such interest suggests a theatre culture finally liberated from its stereotyped calling card – the Irish way with words, for instance, or edifying tales of misery and alcoholism. However adventurous the work might be, though, a visitor to a new land can be swamped by preconceptions. One young Finnish journalist, for instance wanted only to know Gary Keegan’s views on the oeuvre of Martin McDonagh. “He was a very strong frame of reference,” said Keegan with mild amusement.
The cliché of Irish theatre, in which the play’s the thing, barely obtains anymore, even with text-based work. When Druid tours new works by Enda Walsh (his latest play Penelope, currently in Edinburgh, soon travels to Helsinki, New York and London) it is the realisation of the world, physically and stylistically, as much as the words, that creates their appeal. And Pan Pan, which regularly premieres work abroad and moves fluently between theatre cultures, has long stretched the definition of Irish theatre and its relationship to text, making its source material appear radically different in The Crumb Trail, Oedipus Loves You or The Playboy of the Western World.
As The Performance Corporation installed Power Point, its 2009 Dublin Fringe show, into an appropriately and lavishly impersonal function room in the Hotel Ilves, director Jo Mangan reflected on cultural differences, while writer Tom Swift entertained some cultural congruences. Mangan was surprised, for instance, to find herself the centre of attention at a morning press conference in the Festival club. “Normally people want to talk to the writer at home,” she said. But here the questions focussed on the method of manufacture, the nuts and bolts of performance. With its show poster – a picture of the actress Lisa Lambe holding a white python, embellished with geometrical design – doubling as the festival’s marketing image and prominently displayed on every billboard and bus shelter in town, Irish visitors seemed to enjoy unusual focus and exposure.
“This wasn’t an Irish stage play in the classic tradition,” said Swift. “They have had McDonagh plays and similar texts produced by other companies in the festival. I think they were interested in site-specific work and the idea that it’s not exactly traditional story telling. It’s a bit fractured. This is not a “well-made play” in the traditional sense. It’s kind of a wonky play.” Its satirical drive, which dwells on the hollow motivational rhetoric of business jargon, came from a particularly Irish circumstance. “We went from being a forward-thinking, capitalist, dynamic and rich economy to having it all stripped and shattered… We construct our reality and underpin it with storytelling. These so-called all-knowing business gurus tell us stories to underpin the way they want us to see the world and we realise their stories are based on absolutely nothing. In the end the only things we can believe in are very simple humanist values. That’s what, in my head, we were trying to achieve with the play.”
Swift was wary of looking for glib cultural equivalents – a statesman’s stratagem – but he considered the Finnish history of shifting fortunes against imperial rule, nominal independence and strategic friendship with the USSR to be germane. “They went through a similar crisis to what we’re going through at the moment. When the Soviet Union collapsed, their economy collapsed and they had to turn their way of thinking around, to look west instead of east. Hopefully that might have a resonance.”
The festival itself tended to look directly east, west and south, with a neighbourly focus on Russia, Sweden and Estonia. Pushkin Drama Theatre staged a malleable, bare-boards version of Aleksander Ostrovsky’s folktale The Storm. Estonia’s No99 ensemble presented their Joseph Beuys-inspired, invigoratingly surreal piece How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare. And Finnish-Swedish theatre, such as Teater Mestola’s Eugen Schauman, employed a rough fringe aesthetic towards ideas of nationalism, in which Darth Vadar costumes and blow-up sex dolls could be used to depict a nineteenth century political assassination. It was not always apparent – to an English speaker in particular – whether the productions in the festival were in thematic or formal consort with each other. And, for participants busy with their own activities, the greater design of the Tampere programme barely registered.
“Seeing work from overseas always broadens your perspective,” says Jo Mangan, who also thought it useful for theatre makers to locate themselves in a broader theatre landscape. “When you see international work, you see how you fit in. I think participating in a festival like this, seeing work, but also feeling that we’re part of a bigger theatre world, is really important. Feeling at home in that bigger theatre world is something I would aspire to.”
Gary Keegan, who hosted a number of workshops in between his productions, admitted he barely left a “Brokentalkers bubble”, but he views festival inclusion in both artistic and strategic terms. “I think the personal connections that are made are incredibly useful to us. And we do a lot to develop these. We’re doing an ‘In Development’ piece in the Dublin Theatre Festival this year and there are at least a dozen people that we met in Tampere who we will be encouraging to come along. As you can imagine there’s a lot of crossover between delegates and guests at different festivals. Having someone here like Siobhan Bourke from the Irish Theatre Institute to steer us in the right direction, to tell us chase this one, leave this one, is important. For us, it’s a learning curve. And in the long term it does no harm to have our work seen and to keep people in touch with us.”
Much of this exposure, both companies underlined, could only happen with support from Culture Ireland, which has recognised and promoted the ambassadorial roles of Irish arts abroad. Yet the work of both companies unsettled any easy notions of identity, with Irish work that seemed more elastic than any national boundary. Power Point, played in the anonymity of a hotel function room and touching on the globalisation of culture, drew from broadly recognisable reference points: “things that are occupying people’s minds around the world,” as Mangan put it.
“In a way, In Real Time is an international piece,” agreed Keegan, although he did recognise the truth of international commentators who find “an Irish quality to it, whether it’s a sense of fun or humour.”
“But I don’t necessarily feel that the work always has to originate in Ireland,” he said of the possibilities of commissions and co-productions. “For us, we’re trying to build an international profile. That’s the ultimate ambition.”
Urban stories have similar concerns irrespective of – or perhaps because of – a loosening sense of geography. (Every country, it seems, can have its own Manchester.) The threat of disconnection, which underlies In Real Time, or the struggle to make appropriate stories for new realities which animates Power Point, are as comprehensible in Dublin or Tampere, New York or Tokyo.
“We see the work existing in an urban setting, for whatever reason,” says Keegan, and he could easily be describing the contemporary festival experience. “It’s what drives us. That feeling of fragile connections. Fleeting connections.”
Peter Crawley is News Editor of this magazine and Theatre Critic with the Irish Times.