Success after success

9 March 2012 | This 'n' that

The women of Purge: Elena Leeve and Tea Ista in Sofi Oksanen's Puhdistus at the Finnish National Theatre, directed by Mika Myllyaho. Photo: Leena Klemelä, 2007

Sofi Oksanen’s Purge, an unparalleled Finnish literary sensation, is running in a production by Arcola Theatre in London, from 22 February to 24 March.

First premiered at the Finnish National Theatre in Helsinki in 2007, Puhdistus, to give it its Finnish title, was subsequently reworked by Oksanen (born 1977) into a novel – her third.

Puhdistus retells the story of her play about two Estonian women, moving through the past in flashbacks between 1939 and 1992. Aliide has experienced the horrors of the Stalin era and the deportation of Estonians to Siberia, but has to cope with the guilt of opportunism and even manslaughter. One night in 1992 she finds a young woman in the courtyard of her house; Zara has just escaped from the claws of members of the Russian mafia who held her as a sex slave. (Maya Jaggi reviewed the novel in London’s Guardian newspaper.)

In February 2011 Purge the play was produced at the prestigious La MaMa theatre in New York, directed by Zishan Ugurlu, La MaMa’s Artistic Director.

Reviews in London have been favourable. The Guardian’s critic Lyn Gardner felt that ‘the dialogue between past and present one is a fruitful one,’ and that ‘Elgiva Field’s production makes terrific virtue of the intimacy of the space to ratchet up the tension‘. However, in Gardner’s view the novel form is ‘probably a far better form to explore the complexities of a narrative where personal choices are driven by political shifts, and where women in particular struggle to survive as they are buffeted by history and the repressive power-plays of men.’

The novel Purge was published in English in 2010 by Grove Atlantic in a translation by Lola Rogers. Its rights have so far been sold to 40 countries, it has won several literary prizes in Finland and in Europe and sold more than half a million copies.

Puhdistus has certainly made Finnish literature more interesting to many publishers abroad – and as a play, to many theatre people as well.

In September 2011 the Finnish National Theatre – with its new director Mika Myllyaho, himself also a playwright and director of Oksanen’s Purge in 2007 – produced a new, ground-breaking musical play on the theme of homosexuality by dramatist and novelist Pirkko Saisio (HOMO! will be introduced on this website next week). HOMO! is currently playing to full houses.

Mr Vertigo:Kristian Smeds's stage adaptation of Paul Auster's novel at the Finnish National Theatre (2010). Photo: Antti Ahonen

The National Theatre has managed to build a remarkable profile during the past few years: two productions by Kristian Smeds, Tuntematon sotilas (‘The unknown soldier’, 2007) and Vertigo (2010) have brought fame to both their director and the theatre.

Last year in St Petersburg Smeds received one of the XII Theatre Prizes for New Theatrical Realities.

In 2011, audiences at the National rose by 53,000 compared to 2010: this can only be achieved by producing strong stuff – contemporary drama that interests a wide audience.

Not an easy thing these days; but then, neither is a success on the scale of Oksanen’s Purge.

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