Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Fire in the North Sky: Epic Tales from Finland (Saatuja Sanoja)

Nick Hennessey, Anna-Kaisa Liedes, Kristiina Ilmonen and Timo Väänänen
Adverse Camber Productions
Carriageworks Theatre, Leeds

Finland is a country of extremes—a place of vast lakes and sprawling forests, of harsh winters and glorious summers. The dramatic nature of the landscape is reflected in its mythology, which offers a wealth of strange and beguiling tales, populated by magical heroes and strange spirits.

In Fire and the North Sky, the UK storyteller Nick Hennessey and a trio of talented Finnish musicians—Anna-Kaisa Liedes, Kristiina Ilmonen and Timo Väänänen—breathe new life into Finland’s national epic, the Kalevala (published in 1835 and 1849). In 1828, the folklorist Elias Lönnrot travelled to Karelia—a remote, rural borderland between Russia and Finland—in order to listen to folk singers and collect their ancient songs. Consequently, the narrative poems compiled in the Kalevala form part of an enduring oral tradition that stretches back over thousands of years.

Over the course of two enthralling hours, the four performers guide us through the unfamiliar terrain of Finnish legend, which—like many other storytelling traditions—is largely built on the ideas of transformation and rebirth. We learn that the world was formed from a cracked duck egg. We hear about the beautiful maiden Aino, who was transformed into a fish after she swam away from the unwanted attentions of an elderly shaman. We are told about the headstrong youth Lemminkäinen, whose broken corpse is reassembled by his mother and later brought back to life.

It would be difficult to identify one favourite moment from the show, but I was particularly taken with the story of Väinämöinen—the central figure of the Kalevala—who climbs into the stomach of an ancient and ill-tempered giant and refuses to leave until the latter has shared his secret magical knowledge.

Nick Hennessey is a spellbinding performer with a deep understanding of Finnish storytelling traditions, having told stories from the Kalevala for the past 14 years. Throughout the show, he inhabits an assortment of weird and wonderful characters and brings them thrillingly to life with his mellifluous voice and vivid physical characterisations. From the moment he invites the audience to take a swig of salmiakki (salty liquorice) at the beginning of the show, you feel that you are being taken under the wing of a master storyteller.

Hennessey is ably supported by three talented musicians, all of whom lecture in music at the University of the Arts Helsinki and perform in the folk group Suunta. Anna-Kaisa Liedes has a beautiful and supple voice that she manipulates to create a range of startling effects. Kristiina Ilmnonen (flutes and percussion) and Timo Väänänen (kantele and pyngr) are both skilled multi-instrumentalists whose evocative music combines with Hennessey’s words to cast a spell upon the audience.

Fire in the North Sky is one of the most pleasurable evenings I have spent in the theatre all year. The palpable joy that the performers take in sharing their songs and stories is infectious, and I urge readers to keep an eye open for upcoming tour dates.

Reviewer: James Ballands