We spoke to Finnish theatre director and performer Essi Rossi and performer Johannes Holopainen about Johnny Got his Gun, an upcoming performance heading to the Edinburgh Fringe as part of the From Start to Finnish showcase . The show is based on the 1938 anti – war novel by American writer Dalton Trumbo and created by Essi Rossi, Johannes Holopainen and Pauli Riikone. This emotionally charged new show examines the life – changing impact fighting in World War I had on the returning soldiers. Once a fierce patriot, the injured soldier has sacrificed everything in the belief that fighting for liberty and democracy was the right thing to do.
Can you tell us a bit about the show?
Essi: Johnny Got His Gun is a solo performance about a 19 year old soldier, Joe Bonham, who explodes from a grenade in WW1, but survives against all odds. Without eyes, ears, tongue and limbs, Joe is desperately seeking for contact throughout the 20th century to tell his story and fight for peace. Finnish star Johannes Holopainen is playing Joe, and despite the rough content in the performance, it is actually a celebration of life. The performance happens in Joe’s mind where the memories of war and first love, nightmares of rats and plans for revenge linger together, creating a powerful and thought provoking, sensuous stage concert. It’s so intense that the audience might forget to breathe! The performance is based on a dreamlike anti – war novel by Dalton Trumbo which was published in the beginning of the world war II and was immediately banned. Unnecessary to say it’s very topical due and manages to do an autopsy for the concept of war in a way that I hope this performance will end all the wars in the world.
Johannes: Joe Bonham lost (almost) every way to communicate in a WW1 meeting with a grenade that blew out his face and limbs. We decided to harness the imagination between the audience and the physical presence of the performer. Joe can not speak, see, hear, or move. So, to express his voice, we wanted to go to the other extreme and physicalize it. Beyond words is the body. Johnny Got His Gun is a substantial and subjective novel. The stage offers the presence and the connection, which, to me, is the key to the piece. What makes us human is our connection to another. The smallest number of humanity is two.
What do you want audiences to take away from seeing the show?
Essi: Their bodies, their emotions, and their thoughts. Watching this performance reminds me that I’m still alive and to me anything is possible, which is a huge privilege in this world and at the same time a huge responsibility. Every little action matters, whether we are talking about wars or eco crisis.
Johannes: Peace. I wish the audiences to feel grateful for life and the connection all living beings share. The absurdity of war seems self – evident, but how far are we still from understanding ourselves and each other.
What are you most excited about for performing at the Fringe?
Essi: It’s a wonderful opportunity to perform for new audiences and to get inspired by other artists. After few long silent years, it is heartwarming to be able to gather with colleagues from all around the world and feel the energy moving in the streets of Edinburgh. And of course, we’re waiting for further possibilities to perform Johnny too.
Johannes: Meeting new audiences with Johnny Got His Gun makes me most excited. I wish to build a strong connection with them. It is exciting to go on a run like never before and construct an experience of flow.
You’re performing as part of the From Start to Finnish showcase – can you tell us something that we might not know about Finnish culture?
Johannes: The cultural geography of Finland in northern Europe, between west and east, creates an interesting point of view. Free education and freedom of speech and arts are equal rights in the welfare state, although Finland calls for cultural appreciation and educative conversation. Our small country, full of old town stages used as local centers of communal gatherings and culture, has a history of public resonance for performative arts. The popular summer theatre tradition and partner dance stages still serve as a form of these traditions. The city theatre and city orchestra system built from the 1940s to 1960s is alive but facing erosion caused by the changing landscape of the cities and their funds. Small groups are fortunate to have access to government and private funds through grants. Altogether the art field has a strong base on education, and Finland has a variety of high – level art.
Essi: For the last few years the Finnish art scene has been inspired by amazing works of marginalized artists outside the white heteronormative art bubble and for example by Finnish indigenous artists, which is so welcome. The institutions and venues have woke n up to the new realities of gender and sexuality diversity, cultural diversity, different languages, safer space policies and accessibility. There’s still A LOT of work to do, but because the bubble is so small, people are educating one another and keeping the whole community updated. I’m sure this development will spread to the other fields of society, too.
What’s next for you?
Essi: I can’t wait for the long dark cold Finnish autumn and winter….not, haha. But I’m working on a new project with playwriter Mikhail Durnenkov and Ksenia Peretrukhina about futures and coexistence, and Pauli is part of the team too. He’s composing a fungi opera !
Johannes: After the Fringe, I will use the opportunity to spend some time in the UK, mainly in London. Later in autumn, I’ll be performing our second solo show in Helsinki, adapted from Emmanuel Carrère’s novel, The Moustache. In November, I celebrate the premiere of my next movie, Hit Big by JP Valkeapää. In December, we release the third season of All The Sins.
Johnny Got his Gun will be performed at Zoo Southside between 5 – 28 August. Tickets start at £10 and can be purchased here.
From Start to Finnish is an annual showcase presented at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe that represents the best in Finnish performing arts. Returning to Edinburgh for its tenth year, From Start to Finnish 2022 features four additional shows: Kvartetto (Sum merhall), Receptionists (Summerhall) Raging Mother (ZOO Southside) and Lion (Assembly Rooms)