For the most sparsely populated country in the EU (with a population smaller than London) Finland’s passion for the theatre is amazing. Over three and a half million theatre tickets are bought there annually and most towns have a regionally funded theatre of their own. During the summer months theatre moves outside to parks, islands, forests and village squares, and there are three festivals of theatre during July and August. One of the most popular playwrights is Shakespeare; sitting on an island surrounded by trees while some spectral voice declares, “We are such stuff as dreams are made on…”? It sounds like my kind of place.
Whether it’s the long winters forcing people to get together and share things inside away from the cold, or the natural reserve of Finnish people who need a couple of drinks to open up (I’m fed this information by a Finnish man with a glass of wine in hand, so I’m taking it as reliable information about Finnish psychology) making it easier to sit in an audience rather than express themselves in person, theatre is a national pastime. According to the Finnish Ambassador Pekka Huhtaniemi, “Fins are generally interested in theatre regardless of social standing,” and with about 50% of Finnish productions either contemporary works or new adaptations, Finland’s theatre scene, while constantly changing, is amazingly popular, vibrant and influential.
Deciding which Finnish cultural sector would be best to export, then, doesn’t seem to have been much of a problem. From Start to Finnish is a new programme designed to do just that, exporting Finnish theatre to the UK and beyond. It was concocted by the Ministry of Education and Culture of Finland, the Pleasance Theatre here in the UK and ACE Production in Finland. In the words of Johan Storgard, Director of ACE Production, the programme aims to create “a bridge to the world through the English language,” distributing Finnish theatre across the globe. All the world’s a stage, after all.
Huhtaniemi believes the project will succeed in “more generally strengthening English-Finnish relations, in the field of theatre particularly,” while Storgard speaks of the cross-cultural relationship he hopes will arise. “To open up the rich talent in Finnish theatre to a broader audience we need to present Finnish works internationally – but we should also be looking to produce new writing and theatre work with other cultures.” Attempting to spread the Finnish passion for theatre, From Start to Finnish will begin with productions in London, move onto the Edinburgh Fringe and then tour Finland. Initially penned in for a three-year run, Storgard has high hopes of the programme’s success, and aims ideally for From Start to Finnish to be a 15-year programme of cultural exchange and development.
Of course, as with all things, there is a more commercial side to this venture, which a representative of the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture explains: “there is a financial crisis… that also affects culture and spending on culture… through increased networking we hope our professionals will be able to… diversify income coming into our theatre.” Although Finland’s financial sector has been prudently managed, it has been hit hard by the financial crisis and recovery is relatively slow. For theatre to remain the vibrant, important part of Finnish life it is now, it needs continued investment. Bringing Finnish work to the Edinburgh Fringe on the government-supported From Start To Finnish is of course a way to attract interest from theatre professionals and investors from the UK and beyond, in order to secure Finland’s continued love-affair with all things theatrical – as well as a way to strengthen cultural ties and suchlike.
It is particularly relevant, then, that a Finnish reinterpretation of Gogol’s The Overcoat is headlining the From Start to Finnish programme, as it will look at the past 40 years of banking history, from the strikes of the ’70s to the present financial crisis, perhaps giving us a bit of Finnish insight on the topic. As The Overcoat’s director Aleksis Meaney remarks, “in the end humanity is pretty much the same everywhere,” and you could say that this is true in terms of the greed and ambition associated financial world (as well as perhaps theatre directors who want to be ‘down with the kids’ and the plight of the ‘common people’). But it remains to be seen whether UK audiences will have the same amazingly positive reaction to Finnish productions as the Fins seem to.
The From Start to Finnish season launches with a production of Gogol’s The Overcoat at the Pleasance Theatre until 28 April. For more information and tickets, visit the theatre’s website.
Image credit: The Overcoat, From Start to Finnish