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Play about the founding of Sointula revived in Finland

Pekka Haavisto, Finland’s minister of foreign affairs and one of the leading candidates in the country’s upcoming presidential elections, is expected to attend the premiere.
A scene from Sointula, premiering Saturday at Lappeenranta City Theatre in Lappeenranta in eastern Finland. VIA AKI LOPONEN / LAPPEENRANTA CITY THEATRE

The story of the tiny village of Sointula, located off Port McNeill on north Vancouver Island, is heading back on stage — and into Finland’s electoral politics — today.

The premiere of Sointula at Lappeenranta City Theatre in Lappeenranta in eastern Finland marks the first time the play will be performed by a professional theatre company.

Helka-Maria Kinnunen, director of Lappeenranta City Theatre, said the story of how the historic Finnish colony on Malcolm Island was founded is still relevant in the country.

Pekka Haavisto, Finland’s minister of foreign affairs and one of the leading candidates in the country’s upcoming presidential elections, is expected to attend the premiere tonight.

Mika Kaartinen, a former Sointula producer, said it’s nice to see the play receive that level of interest, even though the theatre did not mean to wade into Finland’s current political environment.

“We have [now], of course, invited all the presidential candidates,” Kinnunen said with a chuckle.

But the story of the charismatic socialist firebrand Matti Kurikka (played by Johannes Korpijaakko) is still well-known enough that even her theatre techs are familiar with his name, she said.

In 1901, Kurikka, a charismatic newspaperman who was born not far from Lappeenranta, established the colony of Sointula on Malcolm Island with the help of 200 Finnish miners fleeing horrific working conditions in Nanaimo. It was part of a wave of Finnish attempts to create utopian colonies around the world.

The utopian vision of Sointula — which roughly translates to “place of harmony” — did not last long due to a series of bad business decisions, community tensions and a devastating fire that rocked the town in its early days.

Kurikka would leave with about half the town five years after it was founded, but those who remained persevered and rebuilt the community, which still has a prominent streak of socialist and communal ideals.

About 100 people living in Sointula today — about a sixth of the total population — are thought to be descended from the original Finnish settlers, though many no longer speak the language.

Kathy Gibler, manager of the Sointula Museum, who is travelling to Finland from Malcolm Island for the premiere, said many Sointulans still find a deep connection to the play.

Written by Tuomo Aitta, the play was last performed at Sointula’s historic Finnish Organization Hall by a youth theatre group that travelled from Masala, Finland in 2013.

“Sointulans are proud that a play about the place they love and call home has been written and is again being performed,” Gibler said in an email, adding that residents have told her that they connected with the 2013 performance despite the language barrier. “It was their story and they recognized it.”

Director Aitta has billed the play as folk comedy in the twilight zone between dreams, reality and utopia.

Aitta has streamlined the play from its last iteration, according to Kinnunen.

Characters and even entire scenes have been cut to shave down the play to a 2 1/2-hour run time, but the 12-actor play is still one of the larger productions for Lappeenranta City Theatre’s season this year, she said.

But the dreamy, meandering narrative will still feature some of Kurikka’s more unconventional ideas about free love and spirituality.

Kinnunen grasps for words when she’s describing Kurikka’s later philosophy.

“Somehow, there’s a mighty ocean, and he wants to be one with whales with all those women around him that are [also] seen like whales,” she said. “It’s difficult to follow these thoughts.”

At some point, some liberties had to be taken with the historical material.

“We have to let him go and make theatre,” she said.

Some of Kurikka’s great-great grandchildren are also expected to attend the premiere.

Kinnunen isn’t worried that his descendants will take offence at how Kurikka is portrayed. “Of course, there’s a small possibility, but Matti Kurikka was such a crazy person that the relatives cannot be somehow narrow-minded, serious people,” she said.

Kaartinen’s chuckles could be heard over the joint video interview when he heard Kinnunen’s concern.

He, too, remembers being nervous when he heard that Kurikka’s great-granddaughter Raija Särkkä was going to attend a viewing when he was producing Sointula more than a decade ago, but the two are now friends.

“It’s very exciting,” he said of their attendance. “He was the master of building up amazing dreams … it is interesting to see how Matti’s relatives will react again.”

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