Finnish National Theatre transcends the language barrier

Words from above: Surtitles open the National Theatre’s performances to non-Finnish speakers.

Performances in the Finnish National Theatre’s iconic building are opening up to non-Finnish speakers as surtitles in English and Russian enter the scene.

Ever since its completion in 1902, the neoromantic Finnish National Theatre (FNT), which stands proudly on Helsinki’s Railway Square, has formed a city landmark and a treasured national monument.

“The rise of the Finnish National Theatre was very much part of the golden age of the Finnish national romantic cultural movement, which promoted the Finnish language and ultimately contributed to Finland’s independence in 1917,” says dramaturge Eva Buchwald, who is responsible for the Finnish National Theatre’s international relations. “For its centenary in 2002, the theatre’s interiors were restored to preserve the look and feel of the turn of the last century.”

However, until now tourists and foreign residents of Helsinki have only rarely visited this atmospheric venue. “We’ve started using surtitles to tap into tourist audiences and meet rising demand from members of Helsinki’s growing English- and Russian-speaking communities, who would be keen to come and see both Finnish and international works,” says Buchwald.

Finnish playwriting boom

|||Photo: Tuomo Manninen

American playwright Sarah Ruhl adds a modern twist to the classical drama of Orpheus in “Eurydice.” Photo: Tuomo Manninen

Buchwald believes that surtitles at Finnish National Theatre will also help promote the export of Finnish plays. “Finnish playwriting is going through a boom, with many strong plays,” she says, “but we need to make our productions more accessible to visitors from international festivals and venues.”

Theatre director Mika Myllyaho is looking for ways to build stronger international links by bringing in touring companies and by taking Finnish plays abroad. There is especially great international interest in the forthcoming dramatisation of Sofi Oksanen’s latest book, When the Doves Disappeared, which runs at the Finnish National Theatre with surtitles from autumn 2013. Oksanen’s previous novel Purge, which started out as a play and was also made into a film, won multiple awards and became one of Finland’s most translated books.

Modern twists on a classical tale

|||Photo: Leena Karppinen

The iconic National Theatre building was in a New Year’s light show. Photo: Leena Karppinen

Eurydice forms the Finnish National Theatre’s first surtitled performance. This popular play by one of America’s leading contemporary playwrights, Sarah Ruhl, gives a modern twist to classical drama by retelling the Greek myth of Orpheus’s journey into the underworld – from his wife’s viewpoint.

“We’re proud that our production has a great, international team with Russian-American director Yana Ross, who is very well known in Europe; young American designer Zane Pihlstrom creating costumes and set; and Lithuanian composer Antanas Jasenka creating the soundscapes,” says Buchwald, as well as a strong Finnish cast.

With so much surreal, surprising and sensual action happening on the stage, non-Finnish-speakers watching Eurydice may have trouble keeping one eye on the bilingual surtitles beamed up on the back of the set. But Buchwald trusts that word of this innovation will get around, bringing more diverse audiences into this grand old Finnish institution.

Puppets, circuses, dance and jazz

Finnish contemporary circus company WHS is one act that non-Finns can enjoy without any translation.

Finnish contemporary circus company WHS is one act that non-Finns can enjoy without any translation.Photo: Tom Hakala

The theatre is also increasingly using its various stage venues to present less verbal artistic performances with appeal to non-Finnish audiences, including puppet theatre shows, Tero Saarinen’s internationally renowned choreography performances (May 2013) and shows by Finnish contemporary circus company WHS (May 2013).

The Finnish National Theatre’s backstage Club Scene venue has meanwhile been revamped to provide an intimate setting for arty events from poetry, photography and drama to jazz and song.

By Fran Weaver, March 2013