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Opinion: Why English theatre can boost integration in Sweden

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Opinion: Why English theatre can boost integration in Sweden
Boel Marie Larsson (left) and Vanessa Poole in Lettice and Lovage. Photo: Diego Monsivais
12:23 CET+01:00
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.

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.

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