New theatre group brings Mamet comedy to the Stockholm stage

Celebrated playwright David Mamet's comedy of manners Boston Marriage is set to hit the stage in Stockholm this week, thanks to a recently-founded international theatre company based in the Swedish capital, The Local's Clara Guibourg discovers.

New theatre group brings Mamet comedy to the Stockholm stage

Anglophile theatre buffs based in Stockholm may want to keep an evening or two free over the coming fortnight to catch one of eight performances of playwright David Mamet’s Victorian comedy of manners Boston Marriage.

The show is being staged by the Stockholm English Speaking Theatre (SEST) and offers a rare opportunity to enjoy an evening of English-language theatre in the Swedish capital.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning Mamet, also honored with nominations for Tony and Oscar awards, has written several books, as well as the screenplays for Hollywood films such as Wag the Dog.

However, he is perhaps most famous for his work in theatre, having written among others the plays Oleanna, Speed-the-Plow and Glengarry Glen Ross, all of which received critical acclaim.

Kristina Leon, founding member of SEST, is also one of the actresses performing in Boston Marriage. She comments that, for performers and audience alike, one of the main attractions of a Mamet play lies in the singular dialogue, known for its realistic style, in which characters more often than not end up finishing each other’s sentences and cutting one another off.

“It’s easy to transfer his plays to the stage. He stresses words the way they’re meant to be said, he puts in little pauses. All you need to do is read it the way it’s written, and you get it right,” Leon tells The Local.

Mamet’s way of writing dialogue is so striking it has come to be known as “Mamet speak”.

Boston Marriage explores the relationship between Anna and Claire, two unmarried women living together in the beginning of the 20th century. The audience is also introduced to their maid Catherine, fresh off the boat from Scotland and struggling to find her place in this unusual household.

The play draws its name from the ladies’ unusual living arrangement: “Boston marriage” is an archaic term used to describe two women living together in a lesbian relationship, independent of financial support from a man.

Kristina Leon summarises the play as dripping with metaphors and wordplay, and also highlights its language: early 20th century discourse and modern language have been melded together, creating an entertaining mix.

“You’ve got two women living together, who’ve been living together for a long time, and are just constantly continuing each other’s sentences and cutting each other off,” she says.

“It’s quick and snappy, really comical.”

The witty play was once described by Australian theatre critic Liza Dezfouli as “a viciously funny comedy of manners with the earthy vulgarity typical of Mamet’s writing”, but even so, Kristina Leon points out that it is not wholly without darker undertones.

“I was first attracted by the comedy and humor in the play,” Leon says.

“But it is a story of women who are lesbian at the turn of the century, which was obviously not easy.”

Boston Marriage provides an interesting insight into life for women of the time, demonstrating their difficulties with a comedic twist.

The play was first performed in 1999 by American Repertory Theatre, a production directed by the playwright himself. Since then Boston Marriage has been well received by audiences worldwide, having played in such diverse locations as London, Melbourne, New York, Dublin and Lima.

When curtains go up in the Playhouse theatre on May 20th, Kristina Leon hopes to see a mix of native speakers and Swedes in the crowd, but also welcomes students studying English, pointing out the educational possibilities.

“Going to the theatre is a fantastic way to learn the language. It’s not like going to the cinema, you’ve got no subtitles there,” she says.

SEST was founded in 2010 by Samuele Caldognetto, Kristina Leon and Ingela Lundh. Caldognetto will be directing Boston Marriage, while Leon and Lundh play the main parts, accompanied by actress Helena Lewin.

Boston Marriage is SEST’s second production. Last September saw the company’s first effort in 4:48 Psychosis, by dramatist Sarah Kane.

“Our last play, 4:48 Psychosis, was very dark. Now we’re aiming for something lighter, and want to reach out to a broader audience,” Leon says.

“What we noticed with our last production was that people were craving theatre in English. It makes a real difference to see plays performed in their original language. So much is just lost in translation otherwise,” she points out.

David Mamet’s Boston Marriage will be performed in English by The Stockholm English Speaking Theatre (SEST) at Playhouse, on Sibyllegatan 29. Östermalmstorg is the nearest subway stop. Samuele Caldognetto is director, and Kristina Leon, Helena Lewin and Ingela Lundh are acting. The play begins at 7pm on May 20th-23rd, and May 26-29th. Tickets are available through or by emailing [email protected], and cost 200 kronor (seniors, unemployed and students pay 150 kronor, up to 20 years pay 100 kronor).

By Clara Guibourg

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Opinion: Why English theatre can boost integration in Sweden

OPINION: It isn't always easy putting on English-language theatre in southern Sweden, but presenting plays in their original language has huge value – not least for integration – writes Playmate Theatre member Vanessa Poole.

Opinion: Why English theatre can boost integration in Sweden
Boel Marie Larsson (left) and Vanessa Poole in Lettice and Lovage. Photo: Diego Monsivais

Living as we have done for years with our Swedish partners of choice, we are all happy enough to be settled in Skåne, but oddly for such an expansive and cosmopolitan region, there is one thing missing: there has never been an established English-language theatre in southern Sweden.

As performers the three of us (Vanessa Poole, Robin Gott and Playmate founder Kevin Benn) have a lifetime of experience on and off stage, and in Sweden regularly do commercial work in English. Vanessa also does English theatre in Copenhagen, founding an English-language theatre there, while Robin does film work and Kevin has 26 theatrical productions under his belt.

However, as non-native Swedish speakers, institutions like the National Swedish Theatre in Stockholm are not exactly beating down the door to cast us on stage.

So our solution was Playmate Theatre Malmö, now presenting its third play in a varied season of quality English theatre at black box theatre Bastionen, just opposite Malmö Central Station.

We firmly believe that there is enormous value in presenting plays in their original language: you get to savour the full flavour and brilliance of the playwright. It cannot be compared to a translation.

Imagine you are a Swede. Try watching Strindberg on stage in English, once you know the original in Swedish. It is such a pale comparison in terms of deep, nuanced complexity and richness of language. Similarly, Noel Coward for us Brits, or Shakespeare or Tennessee Williams, performed in Swedish – will always be a far cry from the original snap and weave of the masterful dialogue the way it was first written.

Not that Swedish is inferior in any way, it is just that language and culture are inextricably entwined, one feeds off the other. So there will always be something “lost in translation” once you depart from the original. Bringing the best of Anglo-Saxon plays to Sweden in English, compared to a Swedish translation – can only be a bonus.

Most Swedes already definitely understand if not speak English excellently,  so it is not a question of us providing language lessons on stage. Far from it! It is also no secret Swedes already have huge affection for the best of English-language humour, drama and culture – Monty Python, Blackadder, Fawlty Towers and House of Cards among others are hugely popular, as well as costume dramas such as The Crown.

Photo: Diego Monsivais

The hope is that Swedish theatre-goers will get to see Playmate as an opportunity and an alternative: a chance to hear work in English, whether originally British, American or something else. A further idea is to introduce plays to Sweden that have not been translated into Swedish at all.

Here in Malmö, there is already a thriving international vibe in the city. Our English-language theatre is only one possibility in a wave of culture we hope can help integrate the Swedish speakers and non-Swedish speakers, the haves and the have nots, through a cultural forum which is affordable theatre. Malmö has a colourful history of fringe theatre groups. There are some performances in Arabic and other languages in the area, all of which helps ease integration in the city.

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There is a large expat and international community in Malmö, Lund, and all of Skåne – including an immigrant community of new arrivals – for whom Playmate is the only opportunity to see live performances in English outside of Stockholm or Gothenburg. But at Playmate we really need a wider audience to make producing successful theatre commercially viable. Funding is hard to come by, and we sincerely hope to attract both Swedes and non-Swedes. We feel non-Swedish language theatre can be a meeting point for all and any culture lovers, old and new, any background. Our prices are more affordable too than at the large dramatic institutions, which are heavily state-subsidized.

Now in January 2018 we have chosen a bubbly, very British comedy, Lettice and Lovage by Peter Shaffer. A runaway success at the Globe Theatre, it was nominated for the 1990 Tony Award for Best Play and Best Direction on Broadway and written specifically for award-winning actress Maggie Smith (Downton Abbey, Harry Potter). Maggie had apparently complained to Shaffer that there were no good roles written for women of her age, then 53.

Lettice and Lovage is a gem of a piece, celebrating a love of history, theatricality and Britishness. Directed by Robin Gott, starring Boel Marie Larsson, Vanessa Poole and Kevin Benn, we are still grinning our way through rehearsals. The play is as funny as it is clever and we hope audiences will have as much fun watching it as we do playing it. Fingers crossed.

Lettice and Lovage opens at Malmö's Bastionen on January 18th.