Runar and Kyllikki

Written in 1971 by Finnish dramatist Jussi Kylätasku (1943-2005), Runar and Kyllikki is very loosely based on a notorious unsolved murder of 1953. The 17-year-old victim, Kyllikki Saari, disappeared from her home in May, and her half-naked body was found, five months later and 200 kilometres away, in a shallow grave at Kaarankajärvi. After a similar crime six years later, the hermit Runar Holmström was suspected of both, until it emerged that he was in prison at the time Kyllikki died. Kylätasku appropriated the sexual murder and the two associated forenames, but then wove a different story around these basic elements.

Runar ja Kyllikki is a challenging, disturbing play, and Kylätasku struggled to find a theater company willing to put it into production: it had to wait three years before it premiered at the City Theater in Turku. It was later staged in Stockholm in 1977, and further overseas productions ranged from Milwaukee (1987) to Peru (1998). In recent years it has been often revived in Finland.

The play is set in the involuted environment of a remote rural village in the 1950s. The only two young people in the cast are the title characters; everyone else is in some degree old, conservative and repressed. Runar Karlsson is an outsider, victim of a post-war refugee crisis: he and his unmarried mother have come to live in the village after fleeing Soviet-occupied territory, but do not find themselves entirely welcome. Kyllikki Laiho is the devout young farmer’s daughter who falls in love with him, and whom ultimately he kills in the woods before committing suicide himself.


But the thrust of the play is that, though murderer and victim, they are both innocents: the maturation of their love has been warped by their stifling village environment, so that the final responsibility for the crime does not lie with the tragic Runar. Collective blame lies instead with the older generation, who have failed their children, just like in Franco Zeffirelli’s quintessentially 1960s take on Romeo and Juliet

One of Kyllikki’s problems is that, as a young, nubile girl, she’s a sexual magnet for the local men, who are as secretly libidinous as they are outwardly repressed. Even the village pastor wants her:


And her other problem is her father, who is not only very religious but also very strict. Just how strict you can see here:


And while that kind of abuse is of marginal interest at best, occasionally it will look rather more appealing, as in the 2003 production at Hausjärvi:


Of course, in context it’s not something we’re really meant to find attractive. At least it’s not the worst thing that happens to Kyllikki in the course of the play. But perhaps that’s not really the point…

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