Sunday, September 11, 2005

Sound of Music

The Sound of Music contains no tangos, and is set in Austria. So why am I writing about it in a blog allegedly concerned with Finnish tango? Because Arja Koriseva is starring in it. As soon as I found out that she was taking on the role of Maria (this would have been last March), I logged on to the Seinäjoki City Theatre website. I soon discovered that tickets are not sold outside Finland. Nevertheless I contacted the theatre and a very helpful lady called Tuija Tunderberg sent me two tickets for the opening night, which was on 1st September. The theatre doesn't accept credit cards, at least not from abroad, and I had to pay by bank transfer. The bank charges came to the same as the cost of the tickets. This was Lloyds, the bank I worked for for 34 years. Retired employees don't get any perks.

I flew into Helsinki on 31st August. That evening I intended to go to my usual haunt, the Vanhan Kellari, but in the Helsingin Sanomat I noticed an advertisement, in very tiny type, for a dance in the Merimelojien Maja, Kesäkatu. This translates into Sea Canoeists' Hut, Summer Street. Clearly this needed checking out. It was quite easy to find: Summer Street is near the Opera tram stop, and it continues to the bay, where a wooden building, far to grand to be called a hut, is built over the water.

On the wall is a canoe from the 1948 Olympics. The clientele is rather older than the Vanhan Kellari: at 58 I was one of the youngest. No alcohol is sold, but you can buy coffee and home made cakes. Single men sit at one side of the room, and single women at the other. Couples sit where they like. What a brilliant idea, I thought. Sometimes one sees an attractive potential partner, but she is next to a man. Are they together, or simply occupying adjacent places? They aren’t talking, but they might be married. At the Merimelojien Maja there is no problem.

A fellow youngster was Marjatta. The only other Marjatta I had come across was the annoying virgin in the Kalevala who refused to ride in a sledge pulled by a male horse. Or a female horse which had had sex with a stallion. Only a virgin mare would do. Eventually she got pregnant through eating an enchanted cranberry. Nobody believed her.

I know nothing about this Marjatta's views on the subject. I know that she was lively, very pretty, and an excellent dancer. The music was provided by a live trio, whose combined ages probably totalled about 230. An interesting custom seems to be developing in Finland. For the first dance a lady will hold herself back a bit, but for the second will adopt a full-blooded close embrace. Sometimes she will practise a kind of foreplay: teasing her partner by breathing on his neck or brushing his cheek with her hair, but still keeping her distance until the second dance.
This was the last dance at the Merimelojien Maja. The season starts again in June next year. Apparently they get very few foreigners there. I was taken for an Italian.

The second half of the evening was naistenhaku (ladies' invitation). I was gratified that Marjatta asked me three times.

Next day I was on the train to Seinäjoki. According to the gossip column of the Ilta-Sanomat, Kati Fors, the recently-crowned Tango Queen, wants to appear on “Big Brother”. Presumably the Finnish version is more refined than ours, and the housemates sit around engaged in intellectual discussion of tango and other aspects of high culture.

Tuija Tunderberg had done me proud: my tickets were for the centre of the front row. When I bought them, I wasn’t sure who the second ticket would be for: at the last minute I asked the landlady, Seija, to come with me.

There are people who have watched the film of “Sound of Music” dozens of times and never get enough of it. I’m not one of them. I found it overlong, draggy, and unbelievable. This was a completely different experience. It was wonderful, wonderful, wonderful. I was laughing and crying by turns. I tried to wipe the tears away discreetly, so I wouldn’t appear too much of an idiot in front of Seija, and saw that she was doing the same thing.

I don’t want to be rude about Miss Andrews, but I never believed in her as Maria. Her Maria seemed an ideal nun: a little more attention to timekeeping, and she could have been the next abbess. Arja on the other hand was perfect. Oscar Hammerstein seems to have written the part for her (she was born in 1965, the year the film came out). The whole story makes perfect sense. Elsa, von Trapp’s long-term girlfriend, has to be less attractive than Maria for the story to work. In the film she is cold, stand-offish, and useless with children. It’s difficult to believe that von Trapp would ever have considered marriage with her. But Eija-Irmeli Lahti portrays Elsa as delightful, charming, an ideal wife and mother - yet it is still believable that von Trapp would prefer Arja’s Maria.

The play trots along at a good pace and never drags for a moment. Of course nothing with Arja in it could ever be too long. Also the order of the songs is different - presumably Hammerstein’s original order is used. For example in the film the “Lonely Goatherd” episode with the puppets gives the impression of being a tacked-on extra that sounds good but holds up the story: here it appears much earlier, during the scene when the children, frightened by the storm, take refuge in Maria’s bedroom. With Maria’s encouragement, they forget their fear by opening up the old toybox and acting out the Lonely Goatherd story. This scene also introduces a moment of sheer terror, at least for the people in the front row, when the boys trundle Maria’s bed, loaded with passengers, at high speed round the stage, coming dangerously close to the front.

After the show Seija announced that she intended to go and see it again. A reporter from the Ilkka newspaper interviewed me. Quite a long article, with a photograph, appeared on 3rd September.

I would wholeheartedly recommend this show. Get over there and see it. It doesn’t matter if you can’t understand Finnish - you know the story already. It’s an expensive trip - but mortgage your house or sell your grandmother on ebay. The experience of a lifetime. You will never regret it.


Post a Comment

<< Home