Ronja Siljander translated and adapted Finnish playwright Minna Canth’s The Workman’s Wife for a contemporary British audience as part of her degree work for East 15 acting school. Ronja spoke to us about the project.
What drew you to Minna Canth’s text The Workman’s Wife?
If I was studying in Finland, I don’t think I would’ve chosen this piece. This is an interesting play to present to a British audience. It’s largely unknown to an English-speaking audience, despite being 135 years old. It was also important for me that the work represented a female perspective and author. Minna Canth was exemplary in her ability to write a play that spoke to important societal issues. It’s a politically conscious and serious work that retains a high degree of entertainment.
How have you approached the original work?
I’ve incorporated a lot of physical theatre. Underlying the performance is the argument that the play is fundamentally about the inequitable division of labour between genders. It’s a play that leans heavily on dialogue, there’s a lot of sitting and talking. There aren’t many silent moments. I want to fill those moments with tension and pressure and that’s reflected in the physicality of the play.
What was the production process like under the current circumstances?
I’ve been lucky to have access to facilities and support from my school in the production process. The most challenging aspect has been that we haven’t returned to business-as-usual. For instance, last week during costume fittings we were all wearing latex gloves and if someone tried on a piece and it didn’t fit, that piece had to be placed in quarantine before being tried on again. The lack of physical proximity has also been difficult. We’ve had to find new ways to create intimacy as it’s still such an emotionally-charged and heavy play.
How have you adapted the play for a new context?
While translating the text, I noticed that it required some compression in order for the essential message not to get lost. It was a difficult process because it felt like I was at risk of losing the subtle beauty of Canth’s language, but also its edge. During rehearsals it became clear that condensing the text was inevitable. I’ve also had to cut out some characters from the original. I made the decision to focus on the trio of Johanna, Homsantuu and Ridge.
What can we learn from Minna Canth in 2020?
I think younger generations are quite comfortable commenting and looking on from a distance, but when faced with real situations we won’t act. There are multiple occasions in this play where the audience is faced with emotional and physical abuse, bullying and belittling. I want the audience to confront the emotions that arise from those depictions. The play features two very different female protagonists. One faces oppression despite complying with societal expectations, and the other faces the same societal reaction because of a rejection of convention. The audience can choose to, or not to, see aspects of themselves in those characters. However, this isn’t a fable with a stern moral lesson, but it is supposed to provide the opportunity to relate.
Find out more about the play here. This production will be live-streamed from the Corbett Theatre on Thursday 8th and Friday 9th October.
Text: Volter Rechardt