Dating back to the first half of the nineteenth century, the earliest Finnish language translation of a Shakespeare play was fated to fade into obscurity. Almost 200 years later, Kayleigh Töyrä unearths the intriguing tale of how Macbeth was adapted to the forests of Finland.

“To be a well-favoured man is the gift of fortune; but to write and read comes by nature.” – Much Ado About Nothing, 3:3:14

What do you do when Shakespeare isn’t written in a language you can speak or read? You translate. You adapt. You make it your own. And for a young Nordic country on the fringes of Europe, taking on Shakespeare in their burgeoning language in the 1830s was tantamount to saying “We’ve arrived”. For most of its existence, Finland was caught between its two neighbours, the regional powers of Sweden and Russia. This meant that the question of Finnish language was a question of independence – an independence Finland finally won from Russia in 1917.

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[Photo: VisitFinland]

The nineteenth century saw people changing their names to make them sound more Finnish. Cities and streets were also renamed to be more Finnish-sounding. Fierce debates on the creation of a Finnish lingua franca and the merits of regional dialects divided writers and academics. In less than a hundred years, Finnish was transformed from a largely oral language spoken in a variety of dialects into a language that could be used for education, culture and government. And in the 19th century, after years of seeing Shakespeare on stage in Swedish, the Finns wanted their own Finnish Shakespeare.

Enter Jakob Fredrik Lagervall who in 1834 adapted Macbeth, transporting the ‘Scottish’ play to Kurkijoki in Karelia (then a part of Eastern Finland, now in modern-day Russia). Lagervall’s is the first Shakespearean translation into Finnish. (According to Wikipedia it’s also the first tragedy in Finnish).

He justified the change of location in his epilogue with the pithy “Walter Scott didn’t think it happened in Scotland either.”

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[Detail from the play’s title page shows a man playing a kantele (traditional Finnish instrument). ‘Ruunulinna’ is ‘Macbeth’, while ‘Murhekuvaus’ is an old-fashioned word for tragedy]

Karelia is an interesting choice: it’s a part of Finland bordering Russia on the Lake Ladoga that was ceded to Russia during the Winter Wars of the 1940s. As a region, it has always been a rich source of Finnish culture and mythology. In fact, a lot of the national epic Kalevala was ‘collected’ there. (Kalevala was compiled by Elias Lönröt from oral songs and stories told to him by Finnish peasants).

Lagervall openly acknowledged the challenges of writing the play in Finnish, justifying his linguistic choices.

He wanted to use a Finnish that would be understood by as many people as possible, but still preserve the richness of the country’s regional dialects.

In fact, Lagervall actively resisted the cultural homogeneity of an official language that would erase regional differences.

Largervall leant on the poetic tradition set out by Kalevala by using the Kalevala metre and adopting the Kalevalian practice of repeating lines that function as ‘echoes’.

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[The opening scene of Lagervall’s Finnish Macbeth.]

In Lagervall’s hands the witches became Finnish forest sprites and figures of Finnish folklore.

The line of “upon the heath” became “Or the dark forest wilderness/or the house of Northland”, conjuring up home-grown Finnish imagery.

The opening scene is made longer with references to specific Finnish and Estonian locations and towns over which winds and storms are raging.

In the second scene, a fictional King of Finland talks about the various Finnish tribes battling it out, telling us how the brave Savonians were held up in a strait, unable to save the bewildered Tavastians.

The play was never staged and Lagervall had it self-published after refusing to adhere to suggested edits by a publisher. He didn’t take up Shakespeare again.

Nowadays, Lagervall’s contribution is generally forgotten, overshadowed by the impressive figure of Paavo Cajander who translated pretty much all of Shakespeare’s plays into Finnish from the 1870s onwards. Many of his translations stood the test of time.

Shakespeare in Finland continued to thrive, both on stage and in print in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Sibelius, Finland’s most famous composer, even wrote incidental music for The Tempest in the 1920s (one of the last things he did before his 32-year ‘silence’ when he mysteriously stopped composing).

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[Sibelius Monument, Helsinki]

The very opposite to silence, adapting Shakespeare in Finland was about bringing light to the dark wilderness of the Northland.

It was about merging Finland’s homegrown cultural imagery and nascent linguistic confidence with a larger cultural conversation.

It was also about declaring that Finnish was a language worth reading and writing in – a language that, after all, had to wait until the 1840s for its first novel.

Alhough Lagervall’s 1834 Macbeth has now largely been forgotten, its confident mixture of Shakespeare and Finnish mythology marks an important precedent. Shakespeare continues to find fertile ground in the Nordics, where the challenges of translation and adaptation often lead to boldly re-imagined plays.

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Bristol Old Vic Theatre School present a revitalised production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest at the Redgrave Theatre, full of humour, dance and music

[Images by Toby Farrow]

Directed by Donnacadh O’Briain this comic re-telling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest amused and delighted the audience, showing off the talented Bristol Old Vic Theatre School graduates.

One of the tricky things about staging The Tempest is the play’s undertone of slapstick comedy, which at times jars with its more serious and magical elements. This BOVTS production at Clifton’s Redgrave Theatre decided to fully embrace the play’s comic and musical elements, updating them for 2016 with theatrical aplomb.

This was entirely fitting: by embracing the play’s more frivolous elements the production payed homage to the play’s rich afterlife, while seeking to enthral a new generation of Tempest-lovers.

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The farcical subplot was tackled by casting Stephano and Trinculo as wacky entertainers – swearing and coming out into the audience singing and clutching wine bottles. Jac Baylis played a camp Trinculo in white patent leather heels, matched by Tom Byrne’s comic and amped-up Stephano.

The pair’s jokes were provocative and cheeky, fully updated for their 2016 audience. But Shakespeare’s wordplay was never far – the comic explanation of the laboured ‘jerkin’ joke was clever, and reminded us of the original text’s aim to entertain.

In contrast, the play’s main plot stayed clear of these absurd elements –the lovers left to their innocent courtship, and Ariel, Prospero and Caliban locked in their eternal power struggle.

Danann McAleer was a gentle and wise Prospero, whereas Lily Donovan’s Miranda was full of emotion and youthful sensuality. Corey Montague-Sholay’s Ferdinand was young and playful, perfectly in sync with Miranda – childish squeals punctuating their lovers’ games.

Ariel (Dylan Wood) was eerie and his interactions with Prospero were profoundly moving, especially during the final ‘freeing’ scene. Ariel sang and moved beautifully, in contrast with Caliban (Josh Finan) who was a much earthier, boil-covered version of himself.

Caliban’s drunken antics with Stephano and Trinculo were funny, yet also poignant in his desperate enthusiasm for freedom. The spirited cast kept perfectly in time with Shakespeare’s tempo.

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The set design was simple and effective – suspended trees and a cloudy sky background representing the unspoilt nature of the isle. When the Neapolitan aristos arrived on the island, dressed in shiny shoes, suits and Ray-Bans, they looked wonderfully lost in this austere simplicity. Their masculine japes and peacock-like pruning were funny, but Gonzalo (Joey Akubeze) wasn’t as ridiculous as he is sometimes made out to be, cutting a more poignant, dignified figure here.

The island’s magic was threatening, weird and wonderful. Magic spirits were variously represented by hooded, chanting and dancing actors. The smallest of movements were used to create tension and suspense.

The magical masque commissioned by Prospero to celebrate Ferdinand’s and Miranda’s nuptials took a dark turn when it ended with a birth – Prospero rushing to the aid of the apparently lifeless ‘mother’ as Miranda cradled the ‘baby’. It was an interesting nod to Miranda’s absentee mother and her possible fate, perfectly timed at the cusp of Miranda’s marriage and burgeoning sexual maturity.

Charles Edwards plays the unfortunate king in a glittering yet thought-provoking Richard II at Shakespeare’s Globe

[Images by Johann Persson for shakespeare’s Globe]

Simon Godwin’s sumptuous production begins with the golden coronation of a boy-king, the future Richard II, the coronation reminding us of the fragile nature of power in a world of court theatrics.

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Richard II (Charles Edwards) is noble yet also delightfully petulant, a contrast to the masculine, clad-in-black Henry Bolingbroke (David Sturzaker). But the production does not hinge on facile oppositions, instead it emphasises the complexity of royal politics. And in the gage throwing scene the ridiculous nature of court factions comes alive, with gloves flying on and off stage.

William Gaunt is a tour-de-force as the ageing John of Gaunt, and Richard’s cruel reaction to his impassioned dying speech is beautifully executed. Richard’s flippancy fades into despair as he loses his hold on power to an ambitious Bolingbroke.

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Anneika Rose plays Queen Isabel with energy. However, the director leaves the ambiguities of her marriage to Richard largely unexplored, opting instead for conventional shows of conjugal tenderness.

The final imprisonment scenes are tastefully done, and Richard is presented with the same wooden horse he held in his boy-coronation. His pathetic reaction to this old toy is particularly poignant.

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The Globe’s thrust stage makes for an intimate proximity with the actors during many of the ‘high’ scenes. The set design by Paul Wills, incorporating the standards of Richard II and Bolingbroke, is evocative of the deeply visual aspect of medieval power. The music, composed by Stephen Warbeck, is also fittingly stately and regal.

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Despite these courtly elements the production also underlines the play’s human aspects, full of foibles and folly. The comic scenes in the garden add warmth, the actors utilising their proximity to the groundlings. Delighting the audience at the end, William Chubb and Sarah Woodward, as the Duke and Duchess of York, make much of their ridiculous pleading for their son, the Duke of Aumerle (Graham Butler).

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As we walked away from the Globe, stepping over the golden confetti strewn on the ground, we realised with surprise that Shakespeare’s words still resonated with us today in their exploration of nationality and identity.

Richard II was staged at Shakespeare’s Globe, London from 11 July – 18 October 2015.

This summer, the aptly-named Insane Root theatre company staged Shakespeare’s Macbeth in the subterranean setting of Bristol’s Redcliffe Caves

“Seeing Macbeth unfold deep in the Redcliffe Caves was a compelling and moving experience which made the play come alive in all its brilliant madness and poetry”

[Images by Graham Burke]

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Sometimes a performance space and a company come together and create something special. Insane Root Theatre’s spell-binding Macbeth, directed by Hannah Drake and produced by Justin Palmer, was one of those times.

The play’s run deservedly sold out and created a buzz as part of the 2015 Bristol Shakespeare Festival.

Insane Root was only formed in 2014, so it was especially exciting to see such a new theatre company deliver this thought-provoking and mature interpretation of the play.

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The production opened with the likeable Porter (Andrew Kingston) leading the audience lantern-first into the dimly-lit cave.

Right from the start, the energy in the caves was electrifying, as Macbeth (Ben Crispin) and Banquo (Zachary Powell) conveyed the frenetic atmosphere of a war-torn Scotland.

The witches caused many audience members to shriek; their unnerving appearance enhanced by their guttural and distorted speech.

The contradictory nature of Macbeth’s relationship with Lady Macbeth (Nicola Stuart-Hill) was vividly portrayed.

Lady Macbeth was the perfect balance of ferocious and fragile.

Many of the cast doubled in other roles with Lorna Jinks, James D Kent and Elliot Chapman completing a line-up who never once let the intensity of their performance waver.

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As the play moved towards its tragic end, Ben Crispin excelled as a Macbeth sliding deeper into chaos.

These final scenes really embodied our attraction to power, and our fascination with madness.

The lighting design from Edmund McKay meant flickering shadows, candles and strategic spotlights maintained the slightly surreal, yet intimate, atmosphere throughout.

Redcliffe Caves, situated at the heart of the old docklands, are an interesting part of Bristol’s history, and they have attracted their own body of folklore.

Walking through the caves as part of Macbeth was a truly unique experience.

As we stepped back into the warm Bristol night, we felt deeply moved by the heady and beautiful performance.

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Macbeth in Redcliffe Caves by Insane Root Theatre, 11-27 July 2015

Visit Insane Root’s website.

Visit Insane Root’s Facebook page.

More on Bristol Shakespeare Festival.

Marooned boats in a magical woodland: Butterfly Theatre’s The Tempest at Bristol Shakespeare Festival 2015

Directed by Aileen Gonsalves, Butterfly Theatre’s production of The Tempest is a dynamic and exciting take on the play that benefits from its outdoor setting in Bristol’s Leigh Woods. It is one of the many innovative shows taking place this July as part of the Bristol Shakespeare Festival.

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The performance starts deep in Leigh Woods, as singing actors in yellow mackintoshes beckon the audience to pass under a symbolic sea. After this energetic beginning, the audience enters local artist Luke Jerram’s Withdrawn installation, comprising five fishing boats stranded in the woods. The Tempest’s themes of power, reconciliation and magic certainly resonate deeply here among the trees.

The cast of seven guide the audience through a promenade performance where maintaining the momentum is a key element. Prospero (Julian Protheroe) is masterful, surveying his island from a boat’s deck. His relationship with Miranda (Georgie Ashworth) is warm, and Miranda shrieks with appropriate girlishness when she falls for a wide-eyed and earnest Ferdinand (Owen Pullar).
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Ariel is played compellingly by Gail Sixsmith whose powerful movements convince. Caliban (Elliot Thomas) incites pity, but his raucous comic scenes with Trinculo (Matthew McPherson) and “Stephana” (Kate Ellis) excite much laughter amongst the audience.

Though truncated, the production remains faithful to the outlines of the play-text and makes good use of the boats for dramatic effect. The soundscape created by Jonnie Harrison is an interesting mix of drums, instrumental music and singing. And the effect of the music appearing as if from among the trees adds to the magical, slightly eerie atmosphere.
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A play like The Tempest benefits from the unusual outdoor setting, and Butterfly Theatre manage to keep the standing audience happy throughout as the drama and magic unfold amongst the boats.

All images by Elle de Burgh

The Tempest in Leigh Woods ran from 11-17 July.

To find out more about Bristol Shakespeare Festival, go here.

To find out more about Butterfly Theatre, go here.

To find out more about Luke Jerram’s Withdrawn installation, go here.