Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Stormskärs Maja

Please note: Åbo Svenska Teater invited me to see a preview performance of Stormskärs Maja for free.

Let's put it this way: Kristina från Duvemåla is Stormskärs Maja on steroids.

Or does the following sound familiar (warning: spoilers)? A woman marries a man in rural 19th century Northern Europe. The couple moves away from their community and starts a new life together, turning the wilderness into their home and welcoming new children into their family. Their life is filled with hardships: there's a fire on their homestead and one of their children dies in a tragic accident. Even so, the couple stays deeply in love with each other for years and years... until one of them, at a too early age, passes away.

Believe it or not, but I am not describing Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus's epic musical Kristina. Myrskyluodon Maija (Finnish title) or Stormskärs Maja (Swedish title) is a popular Finnish musical. First premiered in 1991, it's composed by Matti Puurtinen and written by Jussi Helminen, based on Anni Blomqvist's series of novels. The musical tells a story of an Ålandish woman's life in time gone by.

What is wrong with us Nordics? Why do we enjoy tear-drenched musicals like this so much? Kristina draws big crowds in Stockholm right now, while in Finland Stormskärs Maja or Myrskyluodon Maija currently plays in two different theatres.

Though, to be fair, I have no right to criticise anyone about enjoying aforementioned pieces. I'm a huge Kristina fan, and I also had a lovely time watching Åbo Svenska Teater's new production of the beloved Finnish musical, now performed in Finland's second official language Swedish for the first time.

Thanks to Andersson's massive showtunes, Kristina's tragedies feel larger than life. Maja is more down-to-earth. Puurtinen's music is beautiful and light (listen to a sample: Maija and Janne's Wedding Waltz – not from the ÅST production). Though the story is in parts tragic, the musical is not heavy to watch.

Maja doesn't only share themes with Kristina. The two musicals also share the same problem. Both try to fit a thousand pages of narrative, a person's whole life, into two acts. Maja's arranged marriage turns into a love match before the leading couple's first duet is over. In ÅST, the musical's end feels especially rushed, packing decades of life into few short sentences. Yet during some earlier scenes, the tension is so slow the show feels quite boring.

What lifts ÅST's Maja above the source material's uneven pace is the unique way director Jakob Höglund brings the musical onstage. There are virtually no sets. The nature that surrounds Maja and her husband Janne's home on a remote island is brought to live via traditional theatre tricks – but all the magic that is usually hidden behind the scenes happens onstage, before the audience's eyes.

The ensemble portray both people and nature. They shake thin pieces of sheet metal for thunderstorm sounds and carries smoke machines around the stage for autumn mist. Real elements also enter the stage, fire and water are both used to an impressive effect. With adults playing newborn babies and the band moving around onstage, it's impossible to forget you're sitting in a theatre, watching a fictional story.

At the same time, the style is both distancing and enchanting. It leaves a lot of room for the imagination. A production like this could never work in a big theatre that seats a thousand, but it suits Finland's oldest theatre's intimate and beautiful 19th century stage perfectly.

Emma Klingenberg delivers a strong performance as Maja. She portrays a woman who doesn't let the misfortunes of life crush her spirit, and sings beautifully, too. Elmer Bäck as Maja's husband Janne feels more distant. His performance is nice to watch, but there's a bit too much rustic Prince Charming in the character for him to feel like a real, three-dimensional person.

Out of the ensemble, I want to give a shoutout to one of my all-time favourite actors, Anna Victoria Eriksson. She shines in her roles, whether playing Maja's older sister or one of her children. And what a voice. Listening to her, whether she's singing solos or a part of an ensemble, I'm always amazed.

In time for Finland's 100th birthday in 2017, Helsingin kaupunginteatteri will premiere a brand-new musical adaptation of Blomqvist's Maja novels. So Sweden, top that! You have one Kristina, but soon, we'll have two Majas.

Looking forward to that, I think this one is also worth seeing. The source material is far from perfect, but ÅST's deliberately stripped-down production is a fascinating theatrical experience.

Photos by Pette Rissanen.

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