On the dimly-lit stage, a figure moves around, sits herself on a plinth with a bucket. An old woman, naked, empty hanging breasts, a long sad face. The sound of water trickling and dripping and sloshing. As the light increases (slightly) we note that the figure is wearing an – intentionally, we presume – badly-wrinkled flesh-coloured body suit. As she is also in a full-face mask, we can take the body-suit to be a kind of whole-body mask rather than a costume. The lighting stays low throughout the show, which is wordless and relies on a very lovely soundscape of unusual instrumentation (chimes, bells, atonal cello scrapings) mixed with live Foley sound (brushing, scraping, clanging, slooshing) to provide the anchor for the action.
Another figure joins her – young, slim, carrying flowers. Crone, meet Maiden. Later, after the Maiden disappears, a third woman arrives – middle-aged, with ample breasts, rolls of belly-fat, and a chirpy demeanour. Hello, Mother. We gather that these three are aspects of the same woman, who is sitting in the sauna (a solemn, almost holy space in the Finnish tradition) contemplating her life as death approaches.
The notion that our bodies are temples for the soul, rather than our intrinsic selves, is tantamount to the work. Anyone who has reached a certain age – 63, say – can testify to the fact that inside they remain themselves all their lives, even though the body changes unrecognisably as the decades advance. The body, therefore, can be seen as a mask that covers the essential being. This is explored playfully throughout the show as figures turn around to show the large zip running down the back; body-suits are pulled on in front of the audience; and in one particularly memorable moment, a face-mask is slowly removed and placed on the ground, so that it becomes a death mask – the earthly remains of a now-free spirit.
Another figure is sometimes present: a ‘puppeteer’ in full blacks, creeping unobtrusively or sometimes dashing obtrusively around the stage, setting off smoke machines, or animating strange shapeless white ‘babies’. We realise by the end of the show that there are three female performers multi-tasking: Rina Tikkanen, creator of the live sound effects (the excellent music composition is credited to Maija Ruuskanen); Ilka Hartikainen and Johanna Kutala playing the woman at various stages of her life. The ’spirit of the sauna’ is free-floating…
Looking on the young faces taking a bow, I have a slight query running through my head about the validity of representing older women’s bodies in this way – the elderly and middle-aged body-suits certainly evoked sniggers from some audience members. But I decide, in the end, that what was intended was a sweet and thoughtful reflection on the female body at every stage of maturity, and that the gentle humour of the representations is fine. If we can’t laugh a little at ourselves, then what is left in life?
The Sauna is a delightful piece of word-free visual theatre, with an enchanting soundtrack – and it’s so good to see the tradition of mask work embraced by young theatre-makers and put to use in an unusual way.
The Sauna is presented at Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2018 as part pf the From Start to Finnish programme.