Twelfth Night; directed by Andreas Forner Lindahl for Shakespeare på Gräsgården at the Bridgettine monastery, Vadstena. Date seen: 22 July, 2014.
Reviewed by Kent Hägglund
Before the early 1980s, it was very unusual to get to see more that five Swedish Shakespeare productions per year. However, in 1983, there were suddenly ten, and that has continued the average ever since. Much – but not all – of this expansion is to do with the emergence of independent theatre groups specialising in performing Shakespeare in the summer: actors who work in theatres all over Sweden during the rest of the year come together to perform a play by the Bard in an outdoor venue. These independent companies differ from one another in many respects, but they have certain features in common: They were founded by young actors (who, ageing with the company, gradually bring in new recruits, in an apprentice system not unlike Shakespeare’s own); there is a mixture of amateurs and professional actors in the cast; and unlike the major Swedish theatres, they often choose to perform Shakespeare plays that are not very often seen on the Swedish stage. The productions nearly always come with a shoestring budget, which means that everyone – including the actors – must help in building the set, carrying chairs and selling programmes (and, given the outdoor setting, rain ponchos).
Shakespeare på Gräsgården started in 1996 in Vadstena, a small town a couple of hours south of Stockholm, which boasts a very fine Renaissance castle, as well as the first Bridgettine monastery. In the summer, the former hosts an Opera Festival, and the courtyard of the latter is transformed into an outdoor theatre, playing Shakespeare. (There is another Shakespeare connection as well: Henry IV’s daughter Philippa, who married a Scandinavian king, lies buried in the abbey church.)
Last summer, the company played Julius Caesar, a play not performed in Sweden since 1985. In 2014, the more conventional choice was Twelfth Night. It was performed on a simple platform stage in the courtyard of the monastery, a Medieval wall serving as a convenient backdrop. There were hardly any props or sets; in the box-tree scene, for instance, Sir Toby, Sir Andrew and Feste (the part of Fabian had been cut for budget reasons) simply held up and ‘hid behind’ tiny twigs.
The company has a history of playing fast and loose with the concept of gender, changing the occasional male part into a female one, or having an actress playing a man. The director of Twelfth Night, Andreas Forner Lindal, did something much more drastic, by having all the male parts played by women, dressed as women, and all the female parts played by men, dressed as men. There was one exception: Pontus Plaenge doubled as Viola and Sebastian. When the twins met on stage, one of the amateur actors stepped in and played Sebastian.
I spoke to some spectators who had seen this production without any previous knowledge of the plot of Twelfth Night; they were enjoying the play, but were confused as to who was who on stage, and what was actually happening. Having seen some 35 productions of Twelfth Night, I found it easier to follow, but even so, I had some difficulties. Doubling Sebastian and Viola seemed like a questionable choice; Plaenge is an excellent actor, but even he could not remedy the confusion. It was difficult enough for the audience to come to grips with the idea that all the men on stage were women, and all the women men; adding that one actor played both a woman and a man – disguised as a woman (or was it the other way round?) – was demanding too much.
The occasional confusion did not, however, prevent this Twelfth Night from being an utter delight. The actors were excellent. Most of all I remember Monica Almqvist Lovén’s Sir Andrew Aguecheek; not many of the Sir Andrews I have seen have been so funny, or indeed so poignant. In most of the productions I have seen, in Sweden and in the UK, this knight has been portrayed as a middle-aged man, trying hard to seem younger than he is, but here, he was quite young and desperately trying to seem older and more experienced – albeit failing miserably.
Magnus Munkesjö played an Olivia who was very strong and confident, until she fell in love against her own will. This Countess could see that everything was going wrong, but could do nothing to stop it; her performance was hilarious, yet very touching. The same can be said of Johanna Lascano’s Malvolio; reading the false letter, this steward was transformed from a normal (if slightly stiff) person into a raving, loose-limbed lunatic. Instead of cross-gartered yellow stockings, the letter asked him to wear a hat with ostrich feathers – an instruction obeyed to the letter, and with patent relish.
Shakespeare på Gräsgården is primarily an actors’ company. Many actors in this year’s ensemble have been in the company since 1996 or 1997, and the joy of seeing them in Twelfth Night is enhanced by remembering them in previous productions; for instance, Monica Almqvist Lovén was a strong, competent French Princess in Love’s Labour’s Lost some years ago.
The actors also take turns in directing: Almqvist Lovén directed Julius Caesar last year, Munkesjö The Tempest in 2012, and Plaenge As You Like It in 2011. Moving between different functions within the company gives the actors a unique knowledge of Shakespeare’s texts, as well as of each other’s strengths on stage – a knowledge fully utilized for the benefit of the audience.