MYRSKY [THE TEMPEST], with music by Jean Sibelius; directed by Ville Sandqvist, conducted by Tuomas Hannikainen at the Helsinki Music Center Concert Hall, Helsinki, Finland. 21 November 2015.
Reviewed by Nely Keinänen
The new concert hall in Helsinki was built for acoustics and not for ease of access: it’s approached from the top, with steep stairs leading down in various odd angles towards a central stage at the bottom: music in the round. It was a perfect setting for The Tempest with music by Jean Sibelius (op. 109). The production, part of the Sibelius 150 celebrations, brought together talented performers from the Sibelius Academy and Theater Academy, with production help from the School of Arts, Design and Architecture at Aalto University, Finland.
As the audience took their seats, the stage was empty except for the chairs and music stands the orchestra would eventually inhabit, and a large round podium for the conductor. In walked Tuomas Hannikainen as Prospero (one of three playing the role), who started the storm with a flourish of his baton. In an absolutely brilliant piece of staging, the storm took place outside the auditorium, in the lobby which is separated by glass walls from the performance space, rather high above. Huge white sheets were shaken to form waves, and the terrified sailors and passengers ran helter-skelter in the din. Slowly they made their way down to the stage–actors, orchestra and chorus–with cries of “we’re lost, we’re lost.” Throughout the production, director Ville Sandqvist used every available space–and even some which weren’t available, as in a sequence where Caliban asked members of the audience to move over so he could take their seats and lay down under his cloak as the storm approached. Actors balanced on ledges, singers peered over balconies, and even the organ platform high above became the conspirators’ hideout. I wasn’t sure how the concert hall would work for theater, but the verdict is clear: splendidly.
Sandqvist, who wrote the script based on a translation by Eeva-Liisa Manner, has a flair for the metatheatrical. Two actors were responsible for multiple speaking parts: Mari Naumala moved seamlessly between Prospero, Ariel and Miranda, while Chike Ohanwe played Prospero, Caliban and Ferdinand. Especially the shared speeches of Prospero were effective, echoing each other like musical themes moving between instruments, complementing beautifully the enormously rich textures and nuances of Sibelius’s music. This minimalist casting was balanced by maximalist casting: Ariel was played by five singers dressed like mermaids, with flowing blue-green dresses and Marilyn Monroe-like wigs. Their rendition of “Full Fathom Five” was exquisite. The same singers also doubled as the shipwrecked courtiers, sometimes comically represented by red top hats.
Fun was had with Caliban’s conspiracy. In the longest metatheatrical insertion, Caliban the actor finds and trains Caliban the singer (played by Mikko Sateila, who has an excellent voice), then Trinculo (a very funny Jussi Vänttinen, who somehow managed to hold his body at an 80 degree angle for much of the performance). Stephano (Henri Tikkanen) had to start over his song. I felt these jokes went on for a bit long, but enjoyed the moment when Prospero/Hannikainen directed an orchestra playing silently upon their instruments. Another effective linking between music and theater was when the three conspirators were distracted from their mission by the orchestra itself, and wandered through it fondling instruments and clothing.
The masque scene, when it finally came (the Ariels went on strike first), was beautiful, both vocally and visually. Another fine moment came near the end, in the interplay between Prospero and the Ariels (here played by the actors):
Naumala: Your charm so strongly works ‘em,
That if you now beheld them, your affections
Would become tender.
Hannikainen: Dost thou think so, spirit?
Ohanwe: Mine would, sir, were I human.
Hannikainen: And mine shall.
This fine and often very moving production reminded me of a Tempest I took my students to see at Shakespeare’s Globe Theater in 2005, where Alex Hassell, Edward Hogg and Mark Rylance covered the speaking roles, supplemented by dancers and singers. As I suspect happens in these sorts of productions, those who know the play well are dazzled, and those who are unfamiliar with it are a little confused (in both cases, I spent much of the intermission explaining the plot to my companions). But nevertheless, the combination here of Sibelius’s music, spectacle and farce added up to one of the most enjoyable evenings in the theater I’ve had in a long time. The only pity was that this was a one-off performance. I would have liked to see it again.
Photo Credit: Marko Mäkinen