Hana Worthen and Kristian Smeds, Ethics of Translation: Kristian Smeds's 'Mental Finland'

Ethics of Translation: Kristian Smeds’s Mental Finland
A Talk and Discussion with Professor Hana Worthen and Director Kristian Smeds
Wednesday, March 21, 2012 at 7 PM
Ella Weed Room, 223 Milbank
The Department of Theatre and the Center for Translation Studies are pleased to welcome the acclaimed European stage director Kristian Smeds to Barnard College in the Spring of 2012.
Assistant Professor Hana Worthen speaks about the Finnish director's multi-lingual Mental Finland, a mise-en-scène evoking a critique of the fixed imagery of national/European identity, and concludes with a discussion of the performance with the director Kristian Smeds.

Co-sponsored by the Barnard Center for Translation Studies, and presented thanks to a grant from the Mellon Foundation.

Kristian Smeds’s theatre work—for institutional stages, experimental and site-specific spaces—is synonymous with conceptual and aesthetic volatility. In their visual and associative excess, his productions follow a discursive, postdramatic logic suspending and reframing the boundary between the onstage and the offstage, between the fictitious and the real. Throughout his career, Smeds has explored the ethics of both stage illusion and the public desire for it, blending a complex range of performance styles and instruments—neo-naturalist mise en scène with postdramatic elements, theatre, music, video—into a vivid theatre of social and aesthetic inquiry.

Kristian Smeds. Photo by Ville Hyvönen.

Kristian Smeds, born 1970, is a distinguished Finnish theatre director and playwright; recipient of many awards, most recently the 2011 XII Europe Prize New Theatrical Realities. After studying Dramaturgy at the Theatre Academy in Helsinki, in 1996 Smeds founded Theatre Takomo in the capital, a small company that quickly gained public and professional notoriety for its innovative aesthetic approach, especially to Ibsen's and Chekhov's work. From 2001 to 2004 Smeds led and directed for the Kajaani City Theatre in northern Finland, which became a site of theatrical pilgrimage: with his Kajaani trilogy (his own play, A Cry in the Wilderness, 2001; Büchner’s Woyzeck, 2003; and Chekhov’s Three Sisters, 2004), Smeds opened up the theatre for new audiences, literally transforming this "wilderness" venue into a nationally and internationally recognized location of socially, politically, and artistically effervescent theatre. In 2007, Smeds—together with the translator and producer Eeva Bergroth and video artist Ville Hyvönen—founded the Smeds Ensemble, which has undertaken a range of international projects throughout Europe.  Since 2005 Smeds has been developing artistic collaboration with artists and institutions in the Baltic countries.

The postdramatic theatre invites its audiences to reflect on the dramatic text from the perspective of theatrical reality, which lies beyond the imitation of dramatic plot, and thus beyond the literary, the linguistic, and the ideological dimensions of established conventions: as Hans-Thies Lehmann suggests, it is presence (not representation), process (not product), manifestation (rather than signification), and energetic impulse (rather than information or message).  Layering the representative/representational function of theatre and the arts into the conceptual immediacy of the performance, Smeds’s adaptation of the popular Finnish wartime epic Tuntematon sotilas (The Unknown Soldier) for the Finnish National Theatre in 2007 made dynamic use of historical and recent events, political figures, cultural icons, and the theatre itself to interrogate the implication of theatre in the reproduction of national mythology. His black, futuristic, comedy Mental Finland, which premiered at the Royal Flemish Theatre in 2009, staged a related inquiry into the cultural tropes of Finnish identity—bandy, Santa Claus, the sauna—and its fortunes in an imagined 2069 E.U., cast here as a corps-de-ballet with riot shields.

Mental Finland, Royal Flemish Theatre, 2009. Photo by Bart Grietens, courtesy of Smeds Ensemble.

In his 2010 Mr Vertigo, a piece for the main stage of the Finnish National Theatre in Helsinki based on Paul Auster’s 1994 novel, Smeds interrogated the ideology of theatrical illusion itself, its implication in the construction of social reality in and out of the performance, taking the contemporary postdramatic undoing of conventional theatrical relations—of space, of power, of representation—as a point of departure. His performance-happening Cherry Orchard, devised between 2008 and 2010 in Vilnius, was performed for a small audience in Lithuania and streamed as a video installation created by Ville Hyvönen and Lennar Laberenz to festivals throughout Europe; invited to the Vienna Festwochen 2011, it was reconceptualized as Vyšniu sodas—Der Kirschgarten, partly set in an immigrant community on the edge of Vienna, addressing the condition and treatment of refugees in Austria, and Europe, today. For the last four years, Smeds has also been conducting workshops with students at the Viljandi Culture Academy, Estonia. A culminating collaboration project with Smeds Ensemble and their first professional production, 12Karamazovs is a wild, explosive, and iconoclastic punk concert, an epic work for theatre based on Dostoyevsky that moves beyond the textuality of the novel to embody what is at stake for humanity today.

12Karamazovs traveled through Finland to Germany, and back to the Baltic countries, performing for example in Berlin's Volksbühne in 2011. Photo by Ville Hyvönen, courtesy of Smeds Ensemble.

Rather than merely resisting or dispensing with the "dramatic theatre," Smeds locates a dialectical critique of theatrical illusion between the dramatic and postdramatic stage, foregrounding performance as an instrument for exploring the contours of nostalgia and desire: the secure pieties of nationalism, the comforting structures of history, the standardized relations of theatrical performance.

— Text by Hana Worthen