Greta Garbo’s last hurrah hits Stockholm stage

With a new stage show about Greta Garbo on the way to Stockholm, The Local's Ann Törnkvist caught up with leading lady Ottiliana Rolandsson to find out why the Swedish silver screen legend haunts her.

Greta Garbo's last hurrah hits Stockholm stage

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.”

IN PICTURES: Take a photo gallery tour of the great Greta Garbo’s life

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.”

Ann Törnkvist

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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.

READ ALSO: 'Theatre brings you closer than just going for a drink'

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.