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Homo narrans, the storytelling human and ultimate survivor, represents a threat to the existence of itself and others because of the species’ hyperbolic desire for control. As it turns out, the immense verbal dexterity that once allowed Sapiens to survive now threatens the very future of our planet.
In a breath-taking feat of dramatic construction, a group of Helsinki-based theatre makers have taken the hundreds of thousands of years of human history compressed into Yuval Noah Harari’s 500-page Sapiens and condensed them further into just 1 hour and 40 minutes of storytelling for the Finnish National Theatre’s Main Stage.
TINFO spoke to director Anni Klein to find out more about the play, which is due to open in autumn 2019.
Sapiens is a co-production between the Finnish National Theatre and the W A U H A U S theatre company. What is the play all about?
Anni Klein: Our play is based on a non-fiction title by the historian Yuval Noah Harari. The subtitle we’ve chosen describes it as “the story of a storytelling species”. What we’re doing is focusing on the ability of human beings to believe in fiction, in make-believe. According to Harari, a turning point for the human race came around 70,000–30,000 years ago, when a chance mutation meant that our species developed the ability to speak of abstract things and to tell stories. The new realities that emerged through these stories gave humankind the ability to work together, ultimately creating a force that is as creative as it is destructive. In his book, Harari recounts the history of humankind through the stories that we tell, showing how they both describe and shape our reality and how the stories themselves have evolved over time.
The production is perhaps best described as a nature documentary about the human species. It’s narrated by Jarmo Heikkinen, the Finnish David Attenborough. What history books and nature documentaries have in common is that both are attempts at telling a story, at bringing together complex and random events and rendering them meaningful and manageable. We found that when we combined theatre, the place where we all gather to imagine things together, with the nature documentary genre, it allowed us to unlock interesting new perspectives on Harari’s book.
The play shows human beings as loveable idiots and ecological serial killers and demonstrates how our particular brand of cruelty arises from our habit of classifying, controlling and dominating our living environment.
Authority, control, domination. Their opposite forces might be chaos, disorder and confusion. As a theatre-maker, how have you responded to your own attempts to impose some sort of creative structure on a topic that seems to defy all attempts at control?
AK: The human desire to control, to manage, to order and to classify is one of the key themes we explore in this project. All the action that you see on stage is driven by that desire. I could maybe also add that our nigh-on impossible task of forging a drama out of Harari’s nearly 500 pages of material is a pretty accurate reflection of the wider dramaturgical process that, by the time we open, will have been going on for two years.
It’s also true that when you’re putting a performance together, applying the dramaturgical thought process to something, you’re always, by definition, searching for some sort of structure, attempting to give shape to something that is inherently amorphous and disorderly.
To quote the play’s blurb, “humankind is behaving more irresponsibly than ever before”. What sort of vision for our future can we expect to glimpse at the National Theatre this autumn?
AK: This play takes audiences from the dawn of time to the very brink of now, right into the midst of the flux that we currently find ourselves in. Harari writes that Sapiens faces an existential threat from ecological crises, nuclear war and genetic and technological modification. Although we won’t be presenting any visions for the future as such, I do hope that the play will make people stop and think about where we are headed. Looking back, it’s clear that, as a species, we’ve managed to achieve almost everything we’ve decided to want. To quote Harari, now is the time for us to take a moment and consider what it is we want to want.
Sapiens opens in Helsinki on 11 September 2019. Preview performances will be taking place at the Performing HEL showcase 29 August–1 September 2019. Sapiens is co-produced by the Finnish National Theatre and the W A U H A U S collective.
W A U H A U S is a Helsinki-based arts collective, active in today’s performance field. They create their own work in various spaces, from small experimental theatres to huge stadiums. The works of W A U H A U S take on many different forms, but are often centred around materiality, the body of the audience member, empathy and strong audio-visual concepts.
The members of W A U H A U S are director Anni Klein, scenographer Samuli Laine, choreographer Jarkko Partanen and sound designers Jussi Matikainen and Heidi Soidinsalo.
TINFO / Sari Havukainen, 23 May 2019
Photo: Sapiens. The Finnish National Theatre / Katri Naukkarinen, 2019.