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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.

SHOOTINGS

US criminologist lauds Malmö for anti-gang success

The US criminologist behind the anti-gang strategy designed to reduce the number of shootings and explosions in Malmö has credited the city and its police for the "utterly pragmatic, very professional, very focused" way they have put his ideas into practice.

US criminologist lauds Malmö for anti-gang success
Johan Nilsson/TT

In an online seminar with Malmö mayor Katrin Stjernfeldt Jammeh, David Kennedy, a professor at New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said implementing his Group Violence Intervention (GVI) strategy had gone extremely smoothly in the city.

“What really stands out about the Malmö experience is contrary to most of the places we work,” he said. “They made their own assessment of their situation on the ground, they looked at the intervention logic, they decided it made sense, and then, in a very rapid, focused and business-like fashion, they figured out how to do the work.”

He said that this contrasted with police and other authorities in most cities who attempt to implement the strategy, who tend to end up “dragging their feet”, “having huge amounts of political infighting”, and coming up with reasons why their city is too different from other cities where the strategy has been a success.

Malmö’s Sluta Skjut (Stop Shooting) pilot scheme was extended to a three-year programme this January, after its launch in 2018 coincided with a reduction in the number of shootings and explosions in the city.

“We think it’s a good medicine for Malmö for breaking the negative trend that we had,” Malmö police chief Stefan Sintéus said, pointing to the fall from 65 shootings in 2017 to 20 in 2020, and in explosions from 62 in 2017 to 17 in 2020.

A graph from Malmö police showing the reduction in the number of shootings from 2017 to 2020. Graph: Malmö Police
A graph from Malmö police showing the reduction in the number of explosions in the city between 2017 and 2020. Graph: Malmö Police

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In their second evaluation of the programme, published last month, Anna-Karin Ivert, Caroline Mellgren, and Karin Svanberg, three criminologists from Malmö University, reported that violent crime had declined significantly since the program came into force, and said that it was possible that the Sluta Skjut program was partly responsible, although it was difficult to judge exactly to what extent. 

The number of shootings had already started to decline before the scheme was launched, and in November 2019, Sweden’s national police launched Operation Rimfrost, a six-month crackdown on gang crime, which saw Malmö police reinforced by officers from across Sweden.

But Kennedy said he had “very little sympathy” for criminologists critical of the police’s decision to launch such a massive operation at the same time as Sluta Skjut, making it near impossible to evaluate the programme.

“Evaluation is there to improve public policy, public policy is not there to provide the basis for for sophisticated evaluation methodology,” he argued.

“When people with jobs to do, feel that they need to do things in the name of public safety, they should follow their professional, legal and moral judgement. Not doing something to save lives, because it’s going to create evaluation issues, I think, is simply privileging social science in a way that it doesn’t deserve.”

US criminologist David Kennedy partaking in the meeting. Photo: Richard Orange

Sluta Skjut has been based around so-called ‘call-ins’, in which known gang members on probation are asked to attend meetings, where law enforcement officials warn them that if shootings and explosions continue, they and the groups around them will be subject to intense focus from police.

At the same time, social workers and other actors in civil society offer help in leaving gang life.

Of the 250-300 young men who have been involved in the project, about 40 have been sent to prison, while 49 have joined Malmö’s ‘defector’ programme, which helps individuals leave gangs.

Kennedy warned not to focus too much on the number of those involved in the scheme who start to work with social services on leaving gang life.

“What we find in in practice is that most of the impact of this approach doesn’t come either because people go to prison or because they take services and leave gang life,” he said.

“Most of the impact comes from people simply putting their guns down and no longer being violent.”

“We think of the options as continuing to be extremely dangerous, or completely turning one’s life around. That’s not realistic in practice. Most of us don’t change that dramatically ever in our lives.”

He stressed the importance of informal social control in his method, reaching those who gang members love and respect, and encouraging them to put pressure on gang members to abstain from gun violence.

“We all care more about our mothers than we care about the police, and it turns out that if you can find the guy that this very high risk, very dangerous person respects – literally, you know, little old ladies will go up to him and get his attention and tell him to behave himself. And he will.”

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