Ottiliana Rolandsson sat down on the dark-wood chair and waited for the waitress to return with her order, a glass of red wine, she doesn’t remember which vintage, but she does remember that the waitress came back, only to place two glasses on the linen table cloth.
“I just ordered one glass,” the Umeå-born actress said.
“But there were two of you, there was another woman here,” the non-plussed waitress replied.
And while that was not strictly speaking untrue, Rolandsson was on a date with someone who by then had been dead for almost two decades – Greta Garbo. And the restaurant was once among Garbo’s favourites, which is why Rolandsson was there for research.
Thus began a string of odd events that led Rolandsson to feel that the Swedish silent-film star was keeping a watchful and benevolent eye over her new project, a monologue in which she plays Garbo back temporarily from the dead, surveying an auction of several of her possessions. A play about letting go.
While Garbo was notoriously private, and Rolandsson says the icon would probably have despised modern-day Hollywood where stars tweet about their love lives, she thinks that as an art lover, Garbo would have condoned the selling on of historical artefacts.
In the slideshow that accompanies her monologue in English – set to play August 1st to 4th at Stockholm’s plush Radisson Strand Hotel – one of Garbo’s favourite paintings lights up the stage. It’s a Renoir, a portrait of an ambiguously androgynous boy with blond curls tumbling past his shoulders. Fittingly gender-less for Garbo, Rolandsson noted, as she was near unique in shunning some of the more in-your-face femininity of the day.
“Garbo claimed she was the first star to wear pants,” the actress, who has lived in Los Angeles for 18 years, tells The Local. “But both Marlene Dietrich and Katherine Hepburn claimed that too.”
Rolandsson, who wrote the first version of the monologue for a museum in Santa Barbara in conjunction with a Garbo portrait retrospective in 2005, has her blonde hair scraped back and tidied into a bun with two leopard-print pins. She wears a wig in the play, and says she is more concerned with channelling a Garbo who behind the public facade was spiritual, smart and exuberant, than to go wild with an exaggerated interpretation of her fiercely private nature.
“You know, if her friends revealed anything about her, not even something emotional, but for example what food she’d like to eat, she’d cut them off,” Rolandsson notes, sweeping her hand across her face in a I-see-you-no-more gesture that could have been easily interpreted as utter scorn in a silent film.
There were things about Garbo that Rolandsson discovered en route, and which came back not to haunt but to revisit her when she years after the monologue’s first outing had completed her Ph.D, and decided to take another look at the script that was lying at home.
“I felt very strongly the first time round that Garbo wanted me to put the ‘To be or not to be’ quote from Hamlet in, but on the advice of an older colleague I took it out,” she says.
“Then I found out that it was Garbo’s dream to play Hamlet.”
The quote has made it into the rewritten script and while Rolandsson admits it is scary to take on the larger-than-life Garbo, there a resuscitated interest in her and the era – “maybe because of the success of the silent movie The Artist” – which appears to make Rolandsson feel a bit like a gentle custodian of Garbo’s legacy.
The monologue will travel on to Kalmar, in southern Sweden, and she would love to see it play on stages across Europe.
“When I saw Garbo’s face on a banner hanging outside the museum in Santa Barbara, I just felt “oooh, my sister is coming to town”, and of course that was ridiculous, she wasn’t my sister, but I’ve been so proud of her as a Swede and as a woman,” Rolandsson tells The Local.
“She was ground-breaking.”