A couple of years ago, Nick Cassenbaum presented Bubble Schmeisis, an autobiographical play about the Canning Town Schvitz, also known as the last remaining authentic Jewish bathhouse in London, at Summerhall in Edinburgh. I loved that work, it made me laugh in away I rarely laugh in a theatre – as in, so hard at points I had to consciously stop myself so as to not interrupt the show.
It was also a beautiful evocation of the ritual of bathing and how, in Cassenbaum’s case, it tied him to his male relatives, Jewishness and East End identity. There was also a lot of stuff about being pummelled, scrubbed and slapped with bundles of sticks and the like. I still live in hope that one day I will get around to voluntarily being hit with sticks in a room filled with steam.
This year, another variant of the bathhouse has come to this same Edinburgh venue: the Finnish sauna. Directed by Solie Mäkelä, The Sauna is unlikely to make you howl with laughter the way Bubble Schmeisis did to me. But like Cassenbaum’s show it deftly communicates the ritualised importance of the schvitz or sauna, here in a piece of theatre that is meditative, circular and tranquil.
The Sauna is based around an old woman who has gone into the steam-filled room to die. Once there, she is distracted from her measured approach to death by the sauna elf or, if you prefer not to be distracted by the image of a Snufkin-like creature, the sauna spirit – the intangible beings believed to share the space with the humans who pop in intermittently for restoration. The idea underwriting The Sauna, both in terms of the play and the actual sauna, hinges on a combination of the spiritual significance of these shared bathing spaces and the still-significant, but ultimately mundane, uses of them.
It’s this balancing act that makes the work compelling. The sauna is a place where mystical things take place – spirits are summoned or come in unbidden – but it’s also where birth, breastfeeding, marriage preparations and friendship happen. As the old woman lies down to await death, she is distracted by re-enacted scenes from her earlier life. A young woman washes and perfumes herself with freshly-gathered flowers, a older woman feeds bundle after bundle of tiny babies, and another simply attends to the routines of the sauna with expert familiarity.
All of it is performed wordlessly by Lika Hartikainen and Johanna Kultal in sagging or youthful body suits to chiming sounds effects performed live by Riina Tikkanen. Watched at the end of a day of theatre, near the end of a week of theatre at the Fringe, the full effect of the work didn’t immediately hit me. But since seeing it, the subtle beauty of it has grown in my mind. Through tiny snapshots of an existence punctuated with trips to the sauna, the entire life story of the woman floats into being. It’s clever, understated and, in its own way, cleansing.
The Sauna is on until 26 August 2018 at Summerhall. Click here for more details.