Review: ‘Fire in the North Sky: Epic Tales from Finland’

The stories from the Kalevala, the Finnish national epic, are seldom read in England, let alone heard. First published in 1835, the epic is comprised of 22,795 verses of traditional tales from the Karelian region, compiled into one volume by philologist Elias Lönnrot. It became pivotal for Finnish nationalism, rejuvenating interest in the Finnish language at a time when Swedish was the official language of Finland. Most importantly though, it provided a sense of shared cultural history. Lönnrot collected the stories for the Kalevala from singers who performed runic songs, a centuries-old oral tradition of sung poetry. It is these songs that are brought to life in Fire in the North Sky, currently touring the UK. Bringing together storyteller Nick Hennessey, singer Anna-Kaisa Liedes, and instrumentalists Kristiina Ilmonen and Timo Väänänen, the show offers a contemporary take on this tradition, combining the ancient stories with modern technologies and performance styles.

Timo Väänänen, Kristiina Ilmonen, Anna-Kaisa Liedes, Nick Hennessey in 'Fire in the North Sky'
Timo Väänänen, Kristiina Ilmonen, Anna-Kaisa Liedes, Nick Hennessey in ‘Fire in the North Sky’

Nick Hennessey remains one of the most captivating storytellers currently working in the UK — I am always completely enthralled by his solo performances. Having heard him tell stories from the Kalevala in London last year, it was a delight to watch him perform alongside Anna-Kaisa Liedes, singing in Finnish. Their sung and spoken lines constantly intertwined, weaving together distant languages, time periods, and modes of communication. Some of the most powerful moments, however, came from Hennessey accompanied only by Väänänen on the electric kantele. Together they told the story of the grieving smith Ilmarinen, mourning his murdered young wife. The quiet stillness of their rendition provided a perfect backdrop for Ilmarinen’s efforts to come to terms with his loss, the simplicity of the tale making it all the more heartbreaking.

Similarly striking was the sparsely accompanied story of Lemminkäinen, the Don-Juan-esque hero of the Kalevala who is murdered after killing the swan that lives in the lakes of the underworld, Tuonela. His mother dredges the pieces of his mutilated corpse from the river bed, singing his body whole again, before he is resurrected by life-giving honey collected by a bee. This story of maternal love was beautifully told, the importance of the honey bee taking on surprising contemporary resonances in light of the rapid global bee decline. More than any newspaper articles I have read espousing the irreplaceability of the honey bee in global food chains, this ancient tale encapsulated how integral these insects are to human existence, placing them at the heart of a revitalising and animating process.

Less translatable to the modern stage, however, were the more incantatory and ritualistic moments, such as the bear invocation. Unlike the rest of the material, this highly performative depiction of a bear hunt was done a disservice by being removed from its original context. Placed on the slightly sterile platform of the contemporary theatre, rather than the rural home of runic songs, the invocation lost its immediacy and pantheistic connotations. Instead it sat a little uncomfortably in its surroundings, more confusing than compelling.

Nick Hennessey
Nick Hennessey

Aside from these passages, the contextualisation of the songs was one of the strongest aspects of the performance. The evening opened with a recording of runic singing from the early 1900s, with Hennessey giving background information about the Kalevala and its place in Finnish history. The mystic and sacred aspects of singing was explained — these are songs of creation, that cannot be unsung — as demonstrated by Lemminkäinen’s mother singing him whole again, and the old man Väinämöinen singing spells to hold his boat together. After an hour of Liedes’ singing interspersed with Hennessey’s stories, the recordings played at the start of the second half seemed somehow familiar, rendered less distant than in their previous incarnation at the start of the first half.

Fire in the North Sky is a warm contemporary take on this style of runic singing: the performers’ love for their material was always apparent, their infectious enthusiasm making the show a delight to watch. Despite moments of problematic sound balance (Ilmonen’s vocal improvisations sometimes overpowered the rest of the ensemble) and not quite having the same strength of direction as Hennessey on his own, hearing both the recorded songs and Liedes’s updated versions gave an inviting, modern vitality to the stories. The enthusiastic reception from the audience was testament to the success of the evening, closing with a group song that captured something of these songs’ remarkably social history.

Leah Broad

For more information about ‘Fire in the North Sky’ and for future dates for Adverse Camber productions, please visit their website.

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