A gay fantasy on national themes

19 March 2012 | Authors, Reviews

Pirkko Saisio. Photo: Laura Malmivaara

Why does the private become political? Who makes it happen? Why should religious doctrines define private matters such as sexuality? Why should those who wield power in the political system define personal sexuality?

Pirkko Saisio (born 1949), a theatremaker as well as a prolific and versatile author of plays, novels, film and television scripts, has written a play for the Finnish National Theatre entitled HOMO! and subtitled, ‘An anarchist musical farce’.

Answers to the above questions – and they are complicated – are to be found in, for example, historical, psychological and sociological research.

In the last century, Stalin and Hitler condemned gays. Thirty years ago homosexuality was considered an sickness in Finland; forty years ago it was a crime. Today, it is still illegal in more than 75 countries: punishments vary from flogging to life imprisonment or death. In democratic societies, the ‘gay problem’ is a question of human rights, and hence a subject for public debate – for example, in a musical play, for of course the issue also involves that eternally fascinating and entertaining feature of human life, love.

At the Finnish National Theatre HOMO! is a musical, composed by Jussi Tuurna; there’s a live band of four musicians on stage. The dozen-strong cast, including two students from the Finnish Theatre Academy, surprise the audience with their considerable musical talents – the National hasn’t exactly been famed for its musical profile in the past. Since its premiere last September, HOMO! has been playing to full houses.

In the central roles are a middle-aged married couple, Veijo and Hellevi Teräs, their student daughter Rebekka and the family’s au pair, the handsome young Moritz – and Hellevi’s conscience.

Hellevi is a hard-line Christian member of parliament who does not approve of gays. The biddable house-husband Veijo has sought the services of a psychiatrist because he is tormented by dreams about Snow White who looks like Hellevi. Rebekka is infatuated with the handsome Moritz, but he is seeking his sexual identity and falls in love with a Muslim boy. Hellevi’s conscience can no longer tolerate Hellevi’s fundamentalist views, and runs away – to become a Muslim.

From the metatheatrical opening onwards, the story treats its audience to a switchback ride of events and imagination. Unafraid of megalomanic exaggeration, the text wants to say absolutely everything about its subject; the operatic music pumps into it a hugely entertaining musical spirit.

One of the things that makes HOMO! topical in Finland now is the current debate: civil relationships between two people of the same sex are permitted, but there is no law on equal, gender-neutral marriage. Both the Lutheran and the (much smaller) Orthodox churches in Finland are state churches which receive government support, and the majority of Finns are members of one or other of these religious communities. The churches’ doctrines have thus traditionally been influential. Homosexuality is no longer considered socially reprehensible (neither is divorce!), but because some of the leaders of the Christian Democrats – which opposes, for example, the gender-neutral marriage bill – have expressed strongly homophobic views, thousands of tax-paying people have left the Lutheran church. This, of course, is a matter of concern to the church, if not to the party.

Saisio skillfully satirises the arguments of politicians and bishops in the dialogue. She also allows Hellevi a biting intellect as well as a sharp tongue – ideologies and world views are set on collision paths, but her characters and her themes are not trivialised, despite the comic turns and speed of the plot.

Into the visually impressive bubbling witch’s cauldron of the stage Saisio throws, along with Snow White, seven dwarves: they are young ice-hockey players, with comical macho clichés. Moritz desperately tries to be one of them. Other characters include bishops, Stalin (‘Homosexuality is a relic of capitalism!’), Hitler and Goering, Shakespeare and Hans Christian Andersen, Churchill, the apostle Paul and the British mathematician Alan Turing (he was sentenced to treatment with female hormones as punishment for a homosexual crime, and died in 1954, having eaten a poisoned apple).

Jussi Tuurna’s compositions are versatile, vigorously melodic and rhythmically varied (including tango, waltz, bolero, march, rock‘n’roll, a ballad). His music is emotional but not sentimental – not at all unlike Kurt Weill’s dramatic narrative scores for Bertolt Brecht’s plays. It inspires the cast, resulting in enjoyable part-singing and solo performances.

HOMO! brings to mind Tony Kushner’s famous play and television film, Angels in America (1991–1992), ‘A Gay Fantasia on National Themes’. Set in the years of the outburst of AIDS, it embraces a huge scale of issues and themes – religion, history and politics, Jews, Mormons, angels, gays, McCarthyism, marriage, race, illness, friendship, loyalty and betrayal. Its world-wide success results from the fact that its contemporary characters are very sympathetic in their suffering and in their love.

Saisio writes: ‘Gays and lesbians continue to form an important minority, larger than the Finland-Swedish or fundamentalist Christian minorities, which bear full civil responsibilities but which do not enjoy full civil rights.’ In the end, HOMO! claims: politicians must not define people’s identities; gay people should not be subjected to any political or religious ideology.

HOMO! ends with a gentle song sung by the ensemble: ‘… if there were a land / where everyone could / love, love, love / whoever they want… There the twin towers / would still rake the sky, / in Baghdad instead of bombs / we’d hear a new story / about a thousand and one nights / where you can / love, love, love whoever you want!… Could it be here, that land, / where even strangers / are able to be loved?’ The audience and the cast share the last minutes of the play in mutual wishful thinking.

Pirkko Saisio: HOMO! Musiikkinäytelmä (‘HOMO! A musical play’, Helsinki: Lasipalatsi, 2011. ISBN 978-952-480-245-1).
Production: The Finnish National Theatre. Music: Jussi Tuurna. A recording is available on a CD (later in digitised form) from the National Theatre

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