Kesäyön uni (A Midsummer Night’s Dream), directed by Esa Leskinen for Ryhmäteatteri, performed at the Suomenlinna Summer Theater, Helsinki, Finland. Date seen: 31 August 2016
Reviewed by Nely Keinänen
Just getting to the Suomenlinna Summer Theater is an adventure: first a short ferry from the Helsinki Market Square to the island fortress of Suomenlinna, then a walk across old cobblestone streets to the theater, which has been built inside the thick walls of a ravelin, a triangular-shaped fortification. In order to get into the auditorium, you walk down a winding path through thick walls, with eerie little passages vanishing off into darkness.
The playing space is triangular, with the set along one wide wall, the playing space narrowing to a point at the other end; the audience flanks up from the other two sides of the triangle. Janne Siltavuori’s set, featuring a double row of columns matching the stone walls of the fortress, nicely evoked the contrast between stern city and mysterious forest, as one of the rows of columns was raised to reveal the fairy world. Trap doors in the middle hid Titania’s bower, which was raised into a bed of flowers. One of the funniest moments came when Titania and Bottom were lowered into the bower, with the expressions on the fairies’ faces revealing more than we wanted to know.
Even more impressive than the set were the costumes by Ninja Pasanen, and indeed one of the Finnish reviewers thought they stole the show. Titania and Oberon were rustically regal, crowned with reindeer horns. The fairies, played by the same actors as the mechanicals, wore frilly dresses cut to reveal hairy chests, their wild hair bedecked with flowers. A lot of rehearsal must have gone into their quick changes.
I truly enjoyed the mechanicals and fairies, who formed an unusually well-balanced ensemble. Bottom (Jarkko Pajunen) was engagingly earnest, perfectly complimented in the Pyramus and Thisby sequences by Marko Tiusanen’s Flute. In a funny sequence, Bottom offered as Pyramus to die on Hippolyta’s lap, but was quickly rebuffed by Theseus. I laughed heartily at a Finnish-language malapropism given to Bottom, where he asks for a porologi [literally: reindeer + logi] or prologue to reassure the audience that nobody will really die. Snug (Mikko Penttilä) could barely manage to eek out a roar for the Lion, either in rehearsal or performance, and was so sweet you somehow wanted to pet him. Aarni Kivinen as Snout/Wall also gave a finely nuanced performance: of all the mechanicals, he was the only one to take a drink to calm his nerves before the performance, and then another, so that by the time he came to play the wall he was a little unsteady on his feet, but he valiantly held on, doing his earnest best not to shame his fellow actors. Juha Pulli’s Peter Quince beautifully rounded out the group, finely in control during rehearsals, but touchingly unsure of himself before the Duke. There were a number of musical interludes and songs (composed by Samuli Laiho) in these sequences, and it was lovely to see the same actors sing the good-humored cheeriness of the mechanicals and then switch gears entirely to give voice to the mysteries of the fairy world. All of the actors are excellent singers, but I found Mikko Penttilä’s deep bass particularly effective.
Minna Suuronen’s Hippolyta was bored and disdainful in the Athenian court, throwing off an expensive necklace Theseus eagerly clasped around her neck, but she softened a little by the end of the play, helped along with vodka. Suuronen’s Titania was beautiful, majestic, and almost thrillingly angry at her husband; her speech outlining the terrors unleashed upon the world by their split was chilling. As Theseus and Oberon, Robin Svartström was authoritative and gentle, the latter revealed in two lovely moments, once when out of curiosity Oberon decided to touch Helena’s hair, and later when he smoothed Puck’s hair when she became upset over mistaking the Athenian. Puck (Sari Mällinen) was perhaps too much of a busy-body for my tastes, mumbling under her breath while scampering about the stage, but there was an endearing earnestness to her character as well.
Perhaps partly in response to recent discussions in Finland over the legalization of gay marriage, the director Esa Leskinen decided to cast a female actor (Noora Dadu) to play Lysander and a male actor (Pyry Äikää) to play Helena. This led to some nicely evocative moments, most funnily when Helena was chasing Demetrius (Henri Tuominen) and managed to wrestle him to the ground and pull his pants off. Anna-Riikka Rajanen as Hermia was especially powerful in the opening scene, where she beautifully captured Hermia’s anger mixed with fear. Dripping mascara, which got worse as the play went on, helped. These performances were a bit heavy on volume and anger, or at least I tend to find that forte works best if it’s contrasted with piano (and the odd rubato). But I can well understand that today there are reasons for youth to be angry, and the redemptive powers of love can only go so far in combatting (parental and) social injustice.
All in all, this was a magical production, and an exceedingly beautiful one too. I’d like to close this review with an excerpt from Esa Leskinen’s program notes, where he contemplates the significance of beauty, of Shakespeare in this 400th anniversary year of his death, and of Dream:
“When Shakespeare died 400 years ago, one of his worst competitors, the dramatist Ben Jonson, wrote that Shakespeare was a writer ‘not of an age, but for all time.’ And Jonson was right. Four hundred years later, we still perform and read Shakespeare’s plays. And they still feel fresh.
Much has been written about the reasons Shakespeare is so universal: Shakespeare lived on the cusp of an old and new age, he invented the modern human, and so forth. All of this might be true, but for me the underlying reasons why Shakespeare’s plays have lasted so long is quite simply his deep humanism.
In Shakespeare’s world, all power is violent, and a person who seeks power will be destroyed. Love can come to the rescue, but even that is temporary, as death wins in the end. But what lasts, what remains after everything else is lost, is beauty. Beauty is the reconciliation of the world and reality, achieved through the imagination.
Of all of Shakespeare’s plays, these values are perhaps clearest in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The play celebrates humanity—it is a passionate defense of art, love and the imagination. Power does not necessarily make a person wise, and the best decisions are not necessarily made when a person is awake.
Four hundred years after Shakespeare’s death we live in a culture where the most important thing is to be productive, to get ahead in your career, and to earn as much money as possible. But are these really so important?
In one of his finest sonnets, number 55, Shakespeare writes:
Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme.
That’s a powerful statement. But Shakespeare was right. Where are the princes now? Where is their money? They have disappeared long ago and been forgotten. But Shakespeare is still with us.
For me, this is an important reminder of what is really important.”
–Esa Leskinen (translated by Nely Keinänen)
photo credit: Tanja Ahola