Kristian Smeds is pretty big news in Finland at the moment. Not only is his production of The Unknown Soldier – an adaptation of the recent Finnish novel about the unheroic exploits of ordinary soldiers fighting the Russians in WWII, pithily summarised by Rose Fenton as Finland’s Blackwatch – playing at the country’s National Theatre, his Houkka Brothers’ project Radio Doomsdei features in the Baltic Circle festival programme. Not content with this, he also curated a three-night series of gigs by bands composed entirely of people who work in theatre (including one from the cast of his own Unknown Soldier), under the banner Fuck Off Festival Club.
Radio Doomsday is the third and final part of the Houkka Brothers’ trilogy of pieces around religious themes, following their adaptation of The Wanderer and a “living room musical” about St Francis of Assisi. Radio Doomsday is apparently about Martin Luther, and takes the form of a three-hour installation/performance that consists mostly of the making of a radio talk show in a large, white semi-transparent tent on the stage of Club Semifinal. There is also an impressive quantity of wood to one side of the stage, which audience members are invited to chop up as and when they please. There is also an open mic placed in front of the stage which audience members are free to use, should they wish to make a point in this mad little programme. This is interactive theatre at the most unplanned I have ever seen it.
It’s also uniquely difficult to review the overall impact of the piece, since I was actually *in* it for a good forty-five minutes. The thing with this radio talk show – which I believe was actually broadcast on Finnish radio in the evening – is that it relied largely on a huge number of guests. Of whom my fellow critics and I constituted several. We were asked to debate a number of religious matters as they related to our respective countries. It was very interesting to note that a vast majority of my co-contributors’ perspectives were based almost exclusively on matters of Christianity, both Protestant and Catholic, state atheism and in one instance Estonia’s pre-Christian “tree-hugging” pagan heritage. If the same discussion of faith had been staged in, say, BAC, I imagine Islam and Judaism would have figured far more. But northern Europe doesn’t seem half so preoccupied with issues multicultural, largely due to the miniscule proportion of non-Christian faiths represented within these nations.
Part of the interactivity also involved guests drinking generous amounts of lethally strong Finnish vodka (which came from those boxes that we get wine in in Britain – this is a country that evidently takes its drinking very seriously), so quite how useful our contributions were is a moot point. It seemed unsporting not to try to join in as whole-heartedly as possible, in spite of the show’s afternoon time-slot.
Despite having been a participant – a “performer”, even – Radio Doomsday is one of those pieces which still tempts me to start wondering if it is “actually theatre”. I suppose not experiencing it in the usual way made it harder than normal to assess, and the drop-in, drop-out bar setting, with the temptation of many cigarette breaks, also distracted from the usual level of concentration applied for watching theatre, but nonetheless, given that this was real people actually making a real radio programme – albeit within a tent, on a stage, accompanied by sporadic wood-chopping. It did seem as if a greater number of performative elements could have been brought to bear on the piece. That said, after a while, it did acquire a sort of shape and momentum and I suppose could be termed loosely as installation performance. Maybe I need to broaden my definitions, or just stop worrying so much about terminology. And maybe to drink significantly less vodka when watching theatre.