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Culture

Nothing new about transvestite prostitution in Finnish puppet play

media 'John-Eleanor' at the World Puppetry Festival in Charleville-Mézières Eleanor Tehdas Teatteri - John-Eleanor © DR

At the World Puppetry Festival in France, a theatre company from Finland presents the play John-Eleanor, which questions popular and legal perceptions of prostitution and transexuality both today and more than six hundred years ago.

John-Eleanor is a play about a real-life character, brought back to life by puppets at the ongoing World Puppetry Festival on Charleville-Mézières.

A mediaeval history lesson is an unexpected bonus at this Festival, one of the biggest in the World.

Scholar-cum-actor Tom Linkenen is on stage in casual attire presenting the facts about John Rykener, a cross-dressing man who lived in the late fourteenth century.

Rykener was arrested in London and charged with immorality. He'd been caught having sex with another man. But he was dressed as a woman at the time and went by the name of Eleanor apparently because it was a way of making more money as a prostitute.

At the end, Linkenen reveals this story "may or may not be true." Truth may indeed be stranger than fiction.

But actor/writer Timo Vantsi is certainly real as he inhabits the title role, himself wearing a long frock. He draws a few laughs when he unashamedly protrudes his belly, as fellow cast member Linkenen tells the audience that was the ideal feminine shape at the time.

Vantsi made and works the finger-puppet heads of John, his lovers, a brothel owner, her unfortunate prostitute daughter, John’s female lover Joanna, and so on.

With the magic of puppetry and a bit of impolite language, he makes us believe in the characters and laugh at quite a sad story. However, Vantsi says that John, who was let off by the court it seems, was not a sad character, "he was bold, brave and self-important. He was a survivor."

The play premiered six years ago. It talks about laws in England centuries ago that prohibited homosexuality and homosexual acts. Similar laws still exist in some countries today.

Since debuting in Finland in 2011, John-Eleanor has been on tour in Italy, the UK, the US and now in France. But It’s not been welcome everywhere. In Russia, Finland's next-door neighbour, the duo says they had been invited to perform by a Russian theatre, but so far they haven’t actually made it there. Partly they say for economic reasons, but also for safety.

The well-researched piece also broaches taboos that still exist in varying degrees, about prostitutes for example. Linkenen and Vantsi point out that prostitutes were considered a "necessary evil" by many people, so that "honorable" women would be safe from over-libidinous men.

Vantsi says the play, and Rykener’s tale, show that in some areas little to no progress has been made. If, however, the play one day seems dated to them, "we will stop performing it," he confides.

The Tehdas and HOX Puppet Theatre Companies’ John-Eleanor is not only satire, it is also a tribute to the centuries old tradition of hand-puppetry.

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