Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Treasure Island

Please note: Svenska Teatern invited me to see a performance of Skattkammarön for free.

I have so many things to say about the subject of this review that I figured I might as well start with a tangential confession.

I do not enjoy reading Robert Louis Stevenson's work.

Jekyll and Hyde and Treasure Island are both fascinating stories full of really interesting characters. But were it not for theatrical adaptations... Last time I read Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde took me two weeks (it has 106 pages) and I have still to finish Treasure Island (started last summer). No matter how much I love the characters, there is something in Stevenson's style of writing that really, really does not work for me.

That being said, let's now sail away to Treasure Island. Svenska Teatern's new play Skattkammarön is, for me, as good as they come.

I saw the play this Monday, in a half-empty auditorium with only a handful of other people. It's a shame (everybody should see this), but it lent the performance a very eerie athmosphere. The whole evening felt quite out of this world.

At the same time, everything felt perfect to me.

In the beginning of Skattkammarön, we meet young Jim Hawkins who lives in a small seaside inn with her grandmother. Their life takes an exciting turn when a sailor with a mysterious chest comes to stay at the inn. Once the sailor passes away and Jim finds a treasure map in his belongings, it's time for a big adventure. The local squire hires a crew and they sail away to southern seas, Jim befriends a peg-legged sailor called Long John Silver, the sun is shining and there's not a pirate in sight. Or..?

This version of Treasure Island is dramatised by British dramaturgist Bryony Lavery and had its premiere in the Royal National Theatre in London in 2014. The play is rather different from Stevenson's original story. Most strikingly, our hero Jim is portrayed as a young girl. Stevenson didn't have much regard for women, so I really appreciate this change. There is also another, maybe harder to swallow surprise in store for the fans of the book, but no more about that in this review!

The story has many funny moments, but at heart, oh boy is this a dark tale. Human life has no worth when there's treasure on the table. When put in the right (wrong?) circumstances, everybody can become a traitor, a murderer, a pirate.

I appreciate the grey shades and the questions about morality this play raises. The most thoughtful moments pass quickly to make way for further action – but maybe that's for the best. This way, when the most difficult questions are not answered, they keep haunting you for longer and force you to think for yourself.

Not bad for a pirate story.

Svenska Teatern's production is directed by Paul Garrington, who has among his other credits directed countless replica productions of Phyllida Lloyd's original production of Mamma Mia! all around the world, including Helsinki. I sure like Mamma Mia!, but I'm glad to see Garrington's own style and vision in Skattkammarön. Treasure Island's world is, at the same time, dark, inviting, scary and fascinating.

The production is staged mostly in muted colours, with bright pirate jackets and parrots popping out here and there. Erik Salvesen's sets and Hanne Horte's costumes are both lovely to look at, but I am especially impressed by the lights. Light designer Tom Kumlin creates many incredibly beautiful scenes, be it light shining through an inn's window or stars in a tropical night sky.

I also want to applaud Andreas Lönnquist and Hanna Mikander's sound design. Sounds of waves lapping on the ship's sides and tropical insects flying around surround the audience and transport us right in the middle of the events. The sound mixing during the songs is also strikingly well done.

The casting is spot-on. It's hard picking favourites when you like everybody, but I could mention Misa Lommi's energetic portrayal of Jim Hawkins. When adults don't get the job done, it's better to take matters into your own hands! Niklas Åkerfelt as Long John Silver is just as charming as you'd wish him to be.

I didn't except it, but this play touched me deep. It felt very genuine through and through. It's a sweeping adventure, but at the same time grounded enough for you to see the characters as real people.

Skattkammarön features every single pirate cliché in the book (a parrot on the shoulder, a peg-legged pirate, the black spot, fifteen men on the dead man's chest... all Stevenson's additions to the pirate lore!) but it doesn't exaggerate them. It's all simply a part of the world these people inhabit, very straightforwardly and naturally so.

I can't really find words for what happened in Svenska Teatern on Monday, why this hit me as hard as I did. I couldn't stop my tears during the scene where Jim and Long John Silver stargaze on Hispaniola's deck. One of those moments when everything feels just right.

Shows like this are why I love theatre.

See you on Treasure Island.

Photos by Cata Portin.

P.S. The play is in Swedish but you can request for English, Finnish and Swedish subtitles at the box office, or download them in your phone in advance. Wondering why we have Swedish theatre in Finland? Swedish is Finland's other official language. About 5 % of Finns have Swedish as their native language.
P.P.S. If you really want to hear about that spoiler, the other big thing they changed about Stevenson's original story... Spoilers written in white text in the following space. You've been warned! Why, oh why did they have to kill off Long John Silver?! I kept waiting for him to somehow magically come back to live. He charmed me just like he charmed Jim, my heart was and still is a little broken... LET HIM LIVE!!


  1. Sounds awesome! It's great to unexpectedly find things that affect you so much.

    I'm glad to find I'm not the only one who feels the same about Robert Louis Stevenson's books. I had a hard time reading Treasure Island, but one of my favorite movies is an adaptation of it.

    1. Yes! I almost didn't go to see Skattkammarön, but a friend (who then unfortunately couldn't make it to the theatre herself) asked me to come. So glad she did.

      Heh, I know that feeling... I sometimes feel like such a sham of a Jekyll & Hyde fan since the book isn't really a personal favourite. But what can you do – luckily we also have the adaptations to enjoy!

  2. Very much nodding while reading your text! Svenskan's version was beautifully done (indeed the lights, the lights!) and the cast was brilliant and the sounds were immersive. I was also shocked by the thing you mention in spoilers, so sad. And I loved the brutality, the honesty of the play. Great stuff.