The Soviet Empire has collapsed and with it the Finnish economy (unemployment is now at 20 per cent), but the festival scene remains vibrant. In addition to the annual chamber music, opera and jazz jamborees, 1994 sees actresses from five Nordic countries - Estonia, Latvia, Norway, Sweden and Finland - combining to explore images of women in the Bible.
The project is the brainchild of Ritva Siikala, founder of Finland's first feminist theatre company, the Raging Roses. She was eager 'to examine the theme of power', and the Bible offered her the chance to confront the ultimate patriarchal myths. She was keen to collaborate with women from other countries in order 'to explore shared cultural traditions' and, despite having to omit Lithuania (whose sole woman director is currently studying in London), had assembled her core team by early 1992. The five directors then met three times a year. As Siikala admits, 'It was a real risk, not knowing any of their work.' There has been no attempt to impose a unified pattern. 'I never had the idea of covering the whole of the Bible or all female images,' Siikala continues. 'On the contrary, I wanted everyone to be as true to herself as possible.'
The initial task of reading the Bible immediately highlighted national differences. Siikala remarks how 'in Latvia and Estonia, the Bible has been a forbidden book . . . people went to read it in the countryside; whereas, in Finland, we can have five copies on our shelves and yet never read it.' Each of the directors was convinced that the other four would pre- empt her choice. In the event, there were two (utterly different) Ruth plays from Sweden and Latvia, while Estonia chose the story of Judith, Finland the story of Eve, and Norway a modern morality play with scriptural characters.
Logistics were complex. Each company was responsible for its own production costs, with the Finns covering all performance expenses in Helsinki. Siikala laments the amount of time she had to spend 'flirting with policemen to get all the permits we need'. She also faced the problem of accommodating everyone: 'We said we'd find rooms for groups of 15, but the Latvians came with six children and one husband, and the Norwegians with six husbands and one child, so we had to be creative.'
After three years of planning, the opening ceremony took place on 18 July. A large procession, headed by a 25ft snake, wound its way through the streets of Helsinki to the cathedral square, where 200 Finnish girl gymnasts enacted the creation of the earth, nature and humanity. Men were (symbolically?) allowed to carry the snake; but, apart from four tiny Latvian boys who celebrated the marriage of Ruth and Boaz, the performances were otherwise a man-free zone.
From the cathedral steps, spectators descended into the crypt for the Estonian play. One of the charms of the festival was the imaginative use of non-theatrical spaces: an old machine-workshop, a customs warehouse, two railway warehouses and the crypt. Each group chose a different style of staging: the Estonians a promenade performance and the Swedes a proscenium; the Latvians played in the round; the Norwegians on three sides of a thrust; and the Finns on a circular stage in a traverse auditorium.
As someone who understood barely a handful of words of all five plays, I sometimes felt that the most appropriate biblical myth might be the Tower of Babel; but lack of verbal comprehension enabled me to focus on other aspects of the productions. Each relied heavily on music: Estonian chants, Latvian and Norwegian songs, and sophisticated scores from the Swedes and Finns; the former using a vast array of percussion and the latter a plangent duet of xylophone and guitar. Dancers also took a central role, most notably for the Norwegians, in the shape of two stroppy angels with styrofoam wings.
Thirty years of bible reading proved to be less helpful than I had hoped, since only the Latvians offered anything approaching a familiar story. In fact, their Rute was the most magical and moving of the plays, full of vivid images of famine, rape and pillage, which clearly had roots in their own troubled history. The Norwegian director remarked that it would be impossible to find Western actresses able to express such innocence . . . despite the fact that several had had to resort to prostitution in order to feed their children.
The Swedish Ruth was a far more layered meditation on identity, played on an intricate set including an illuminated perspex mound where the actresses sought solace. Ruth, her sister-in-law Orpah and her mother-in-law Naomi presented contrasting images of the female condition, but the symbolism proved to be too opaque even for Swedish speakers. The acting was admirably intense, but the effect for me was like seeing a Bergman film without either camera angles or subtitles.
The Estonians turned the story of Judith into a parable of national identity. Holofernes became the President of the European Union and Judith, an Estonian nationalist. One by one, representatives of Sweden, Norway and Finland paid tribute to Brussels, while Estonia resisted. When a sword fell from the wall and cut off Holofernes' head, Judith took it back in triumph. The moral caused offence to the Finns, who see the EU as an economic saviour, but the director was unrepentant: 'We've just come out of one union; why do we want another?' The simplistic politics, as much as the simple staging, contributed to its charm.
The Norwegians went beyond their biblical brief to present the tale of the recently dead Hanna, who found herself in limbo with six archetypal figures: Eve (played by an Inuit actress), Sarah, the Woman-at-the-Well, Joan of Arc, Mae West and, somewhat bemusingly, Franz Kafka. The group told their stories with much humour, leading to a stunning coup-de-theatre where, in a fusion of the male and female principles, a stone wall parted to reveal an illuminated tree of life.
The Finns were the only company who attacked the male head on. They followed the story of Eve from Eden through human history and classic conflicts - treachery, injustice, illicit love, rape - culminating in the story of Jephthah, who, in a savage contrast to Abraham's sparing of Isaac, sacrificed his innocent daughter. As she suffered the eternal oppression of Adam and his descendants, Eve engaged in a continuous critical dialogue with God. In the final scene, Eve threw apples to the rest of the cast; a gesture which outraged one conservative critic who saw it as an invitation to sin, when, on the contrary, she was giving them - and us - food for thought.
While each play had its individual strengths, the whole was greater than the sum of its parts. The Roses have revitalised the central myths of Judaeo-Christian culture at a time when most theatre fights shy of them and even dramatists such as Arthur Miller (The Creation of the World and Other Business) and Peter Shaffer (Yonadab) prove unequal to the task.
After three years of administrative and technical tangles, Siikala says she will never attempt such a project again. And yet, as critics rave, audiences flock and bookshops in Helsinki even report a rush on Bibles, she declares, with a twinkle, that she is becoming increasingly interested in the Koran.