Juhannusyön uni (A Midsummer Night’s Dream), directed by Jonna Wickström for The Group Theater, Helsinki, Finland. Date seen: 12 November 2014
Reviewed by Nely Keinänen
In the fall of 2014, Ryhmäteatteri (The Group Theater) created a Youth Theater program for 15-20 year-olds, whose first production was a spirited A Midsummer Night’s Dream. For most of the actors, this was their first experience of performing Shakespeare. The Group provides young actors with the support of a professional theater company, with the director (Jonna Wikström), lights (Teemu Nurmelin), sound (Joonas Outakoski) and costumes (Paula Koivunen) drawn from the parent company. Wikström had chosen to use Matti Rossi’s translation (2005), which she described as ‘light’ and ‘lyrical.’
The set was a series of plain flats, a wider one set diagonally on stage right, which turned out to have a window to a secret room used by the mechanicals, and several very narrow flats scattered across the back. Depending on the lighting, these could be trees in the forest, walls of the palace, even a cityscape. In a very effective sequence, when Puck was leading the young lovers to sleep, a huge moon was projected onto the larger flat, and each one stopped in front of the moon to deliver his or her lines. A small platform towards the front of stage left provided a bed for the young lovers to fall asleep, a podium for Bottom and the other mechanicals to preen (hilarious!), and most beautifully, a bench on which the acrobatic Puck (Nana Saijets) warmed up with strength and balance moves, before launching herself lightly into Oberon’s service.
A marionette motif provided a visual frame for the play: Theseus (Nella Valkonen), Hippolyta (Venla Ruusuvaara) and Egeus (Jella Rautiainen) marched onstage as puppets, raising and lowering their black bowler hats in rhythm. The marionette motif continued later in the play as well, most effectively in a sequence where the fairies led the young lovers from behind, sometimes speaking their lines, thus turning them into puppets needing constant handling in order for their story to come to its happy conclusion.
The casting, costuming and performances of the young lovers played comically on the idea that opposites attract. Hermia (Nelma Lampi) was youthful innocence personified, with long flowing hair, a Peter Pan collared shirt, pink tights and sweet soprano voice. Sara Pirhonen’s rock-n-roll Lysander, clad in leather jacket, skinny pants, and lots of chains dangling at the hip, commanded the stage with her swagger and powerful voice. Hermia hung onto every word Lysander said.
On the surface, Helena (Eveliina Rannila) and Demetrius (Kristian Levlin) were even more comically mismatched. Demetrius was young, primly buttoned up in a grey shirt, bow tie, short pants, and argyle socks, anxiously embarking on his first love with a slightly older and very glamorous woman. Rannila’s Helena was an appealing combination of insecurity and strength: especially moving was her agonized delivery of ‘We should be wooed, and were not made to woo.’ Reprising the marionette motif, when Demetrius and Lysander were trying to proclaim their love for her, she became a puppet master leading them away. In a tender show of strength, when the lovers woke up in the woods, she carried Demetrius back to Athens. Later she shielded his eyes during the tragic conclusion of Pyramus and Thisby.
Continuing the theme of visually mismatched lovers were Titania (Saana Rautavaara) and Oberon (Ruska Lehtosaari). Oberon, wearing high platform shoes, towered over Titania; I was a bit worried about the actor in those shoes, but he moved reassuringly nimbly. Titania was a bad-tempered fairy queen, and there was a delightful moment where she was yelling at her fairies to do her bidding and then suddenly switched into a falling-in-love voice to talk to Bottom. Completing the fairy world was the lithe and graceful Puck, who turned cartwheels, pedaled around on a unicycle, and delivered her lines with a mischievous glint in her eye.
The mechanicals were full of high exuberance, and indeed came in dressed for the gym, sporting long deliberately fake-looking beards. Susanna Seppälä’s
Bottom had some truly funny moments, e.g. the droll way she delivered the line ‘reason and love keep little company together nowadays’ (3.1.129-30), or when as Pyramus she threw herself in anguish against a back flat, crashing into Hermia and Lysander. Ella Lymi was clearly having a lot of fun as Flute; I particularly liked her squeaky ‘Thisby’ voice during the rehearsals, and also her dramatic delivery of Thisby’s final lines, where the shift from parody to pathos was breathtaking. Peter Quince (Sara Pohjonen), Snout (Kajsa Rajamäki) and Starveling (Suvi Tiisala) also had many memorable moments. The atmosphere in the play-within-the-play was heightened by the music, including bits from Prokofiev’s and also Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, during which the players suddenly morphed into ballet dancers.
The play’s metatheater was deepened with live-camera videos where cast members told their own stories about working in theater or falling in love (these were shot offstage and projected onto the large flat). Some of these were truly wrenching, like a girl who was told she wasn’t good enough, or one who was up for the role of Sleeping Beauty but it went to another actress because she was shorter. One told of an acting project where the actors thought they would get to write or pick the text, but the teacher came in with a terrible one of her own creation. Another told of falling in love with a boy, who was then stolen by a friend. It was interesting to see the ways that Shakespeare’s play resonated with these young people’s own lives; I found these stories very moving, and the production as a whole a great deal of fun. Just the thing for a dreary November evening in Helsinki.
Photographer: Hanna Roisko