Jouko Turkka’s factory of ideas

Issue 3/1986 | Archives online, Authors, Reviews

Jouko Turkka (born 1942) is a man of theatre by profession, not a writer. But according to him, all theatre people want to write: dramatic art is very transient, somehow one would like to immortalise one’s thoughts. ‘I want to destroy this virus’, he says in his book Aiheita (‘Themes’, 1983). ‘I don’t want future generations to waste their lives on this. – I have set down these “themes” of mine, in as simple a form as possible, just to show that I too have had a go at it. – Now I have got them off my chest, I need never write anything again.’

The following year Turkka published a novel, Kantelu oikeuskanslerille (‘A case for the Chancellor of Justice’), this year his play Hypnoosi (‘Hypnosis’) was performed at the Helsinki City Theatre; and this year, too, his play Lihaa ja rakkautta (‘Meat and love’) was performed in Gothenburg, Sweden. Turkka – theatre director, producer, former rector of the Theatre Academy (1983-85), where he is currently professor of theatre directing – evidently could not shake off the writing bug as easily as he had thought.

‘Creation is an act of moral defiance and it is seldom that that which doesn’t at first provoke or offend against good taste proves successful in the long run,’ says Turkka in Aiheita. He is as good as his word: during his couple of decades in the theatre he has seldom directed productions that did not draw complaints from part, at least, of his public: sometimes his crime has been to ‘ruin’ a classic piece, sometimes to present the kind of contemporary drama that ruffles the moral sense of the petit bourgeoisie. The powerful first night audience, the so-called mink curtain, has often expressed its opinion by leaving halfway through the performance. Why? Because he stands tradition on its head and strips his audience of the illusions of contemporary theatre.

In Finland theatre has always been a popular art form: in the absence of a court, it has never been able to become an amusement for the upper classes, and contemporary theatre is derived above all from the workers’ and amateur theatres of the turn of the century. Popular comedies and plays set in the country have always been well received. This popular theatre is conservative. Performances always take place ceremoniously in a traditional theatre space, originally a modest workers’ or civil guard hall, now a modern purpose-built theatre; street theatre and other forms of improvisation have always been foreign to Finnish theatre. We have been enthusiastic theatregoers, comedy or tragedy (Finns are among the most frequent theatregoers in Europe); but we have always been conservative and dignified in our attitude towards the theatre. Jouko Turkka has been the scourge of this dignity: he has denied his public the familiar old cardboard scenery and traditional costumes and given them instead, for instance, an entirely bare stage, complete with concrete walls and fire exits, on which the cast and director play football before the play as the audience arrives, and the actors are dressed in track suits and training shoes. This was the presentation with which Turkka presented his public in his production of Minna Canth’s classic Murtovarkaus (‘The burglary’, 1882), when it was performed at the Helsinki City Theatre in 1981. And that was not all: Turkka removed the script, too – the performance was, apart from a couple of sentences, mute; plot and characters were acted out using other theatrical techniques. The performance had viewers writing to the papers. to complain about how they had been robbed of a beloved classic, how there had been no proper props or costumes. And at the same time the performance was absolutely captivating: full of humour, inventive, lovable – and intensely Finnish.

Theatre has always been popular in Finland, in the true meaning of the word, but only if it is realistic theatre. Paradoxically of course, realistic in this context means the kind of theatrical realism that preserves an illusion: the audience expects to be able to make believe that the events it sees on stage could actually happen ‘in real life’. If there is no scenery, or stage technology is revealed, and things happen simultaneously, their sense of security is disturbed: and the audience wants its entertainment to be safe. In Jouko Turkka’s post-modernist theatre nothing is safe.

But another part of the public wants of course to be confronted with new things, and rejects conservative traditions; critics have praised Turkka’s stage genius. They know that at its best Turkka’s theatre persecutes Deadly theatre, as Peter Brook calls it in Empty Space (1968), threatens its existence. ‘Progress is born out of disturbance,’ says Turkka. ‘I measure theatre according to how much it tells of reality and of real things in the world’.

Turkka is always concerned with how reality always hammers the wildest fantasies. His theatre does not wish to play second fiddle to reality. In Hypnoosi the plot becomes more and more unbelievable – but Turkka has an explanation for everything. From the madwoman’s floor grow eight pairs of hands, which are helpful in many ways: one writes poetry on a typewriter, another fills in lottery tickets a third caresses the lonely mad­ woman when she needs it. But the mad­ woman’s brother says, nevertheless, that the hands actually belong to pensioners who live under his sister’s floor for a small rent. The factory owner who tells her life story explains how she got lost in her own warehouse and how a giant shoe and trouser leg suddenly came through the roof. In the end it turns out to be a prop from the advertising department. Hypnoosi is an endless succession of theatrical tricks and treats – but their secret is always revealed.

Turkka does not want his actors to come a poor second, either, to ice hockey players: he wants them to have the kind of charisma that forces the audience, spellbound, to follow what is going on in stage. That theatre should be as exciting as an ice hockey match, that there should be nothing falsely aesthetic about it, no false attempt at art. During his period as rector the Theatre Academy and its students were widely criticised: it was impossible to understand what the students said, they were forced to concentrate on the sweaty performance of distress, anguish, bluster, desire and other emotions that appeared ‘ugly’ on stage, and there was an exaggerated significance attached to achieving a high score in Cooper’s fitness test and being able to do 30 pressups. But Turkka also tried to develop in his students the best possible powers of concentration, production of energy and its use. Acting is not, after all, a matter of aesthetics, but hard work that demands a strong sense of self-awareness and a good measure of courage.

Turkka has poured into his book Aiheita an endless stream of germs of stories, ideas, synopses: ‘what if … ?’; ‘it could happen that …’; ‘sometimes it happens that … ‘. In all of them things happen continually, as in a silent movie: the destinies of people and things are unbelievable, and according to Turkka’s claims, intended to be less believable than reality. Reality has always insulted him when he has tried to fight with it, to dominate it. In Aiheita this unequal struggle reaches a climax as Turkka considers writing a book that would end in his own, real, suicide: ‘For once, an idea would become real. Not this comparison and compromise of compromise, insignificant, like everything else I have created.’ Then he imagines how he would slash his stomach open and hang his intestines round the doors of the City Theatre and walk among the audience, speaking in a loud voice. ‘That would be one speech they would remember.’ Or perhaps it would go down better in parliament. He might climb up to the top of the statue of the national writer Aleksis Kivi (which stands in front of the National Theatre) and open his veins there, so he could control the fountain of blood. But he does admit there is, perhaps, something a little childish in choosing slashing his wrists – it might have the audience thinking only of the symbolism of the act, of the need for self-aggrandisement. ‘Of course, one could just die on video – that would be the video to end all videos. I have certainly been close to doing something like that. I have never contemplated suicide as such, but only as a drama that would be in this sense a perfect performance, or a book that would be absolutely true to life.’ There is also some pitch-black humour here, it must be added. Turkka himself says, ‘Of course, books aren’t like they used to be. They don’t keep you up until all hours so that on the next day you’re exhausted, but happy. People don’t write books any more in order to become famous; you have to be famous in some way before you can write a book.’

Turkka is an auteur-type thespian, who does everything himself: text, direction, set, costumes. So far, his factory of ideas has never run out. In Aiheita he still believes that one can achieve things only through people, not by writing. But Aiheita is also a fairly comprehensive account of the imperfections of people, their tragicomic lives and their desires; it contains miniature sociological and socio-political studies; and at the same time it is entertaining prose. Turkka always attempts more than one would believe possible, a description of life itself: nothing can be described as it is, he concludes. ‘Life will no longer pose for the artist. It does not display itself as stories and subjects and visions, but behaves differently from what is needed to create an artistic whole.’ But: ‘Or is that which is futile, precisely what is worth attempting? To keep attempting!’

Translated by Hildi Hawkins

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