New Faces in Swedish Drama
Beyond Pipi Longstocking
- Randy Gener.
Örebro, Sweden 2007 : Besides encountering a concentrated dose of new Swedish theatre, the best reason to attend the Swedish Theatre Biennial is to take this Scandinavian country's social, cultural and political pulse. The five-day event, organized by the Swedish Theatre Union (which doubles as the Swedish Center of the International Theatre Institute) and the host city (this time it was Örebro in central Sweden), roves around every two years and samples local theatre from the different cities and muncipalities. The 2009 biennial will take place in Borås in western Sweden.
As a national theatre festival, the biennial is deeply idiosyncratic in the sense that its primary audience comprised 1,500 theatre professionals and participants, of whom this year around 80 came from outside Sweden. The works selected for the biennial have been deemed by a six-member critics' panel as the most formally interesting or the most exciting shows of the past two years, but there is no competition as such. The prestige of the invitation is the prize itself. It's also a sure sign of cultural worth and vitality, a top-notch barometer of the ability of pertinent new Swedish drama-such as Invasion!, Dreams of Dying (as a Swede with High Credibility), The Mental States of Gothenburg and Soon Winter-to stimulate smart, emotional and often irreverent discourses on the present realities of contemporary Swedish life and culture. For outsiders, the biennial offers a pellucid screen through which one could gauge the interplay of patterns, concerns, issues and directives that blot and bear upon the current state of the Swedish stage.
The most significant gesture at the 2007 biennial was that, except for Lars Norén and Kristina Lugn, all the Swedes selected were young writers new to the scene, toiling successfully at theatres for youth or at the cusp of major breakthroughs. Lena Andersson, who wrote her entertaining Soon Winter especially for the acting ensemble of Länsteatern i Örebro, offers a Chekhovian portrait of small-town Swedes leading lives of quiet desperation. Described by its director Gunilla Röör as either "a sad comedy about living in Sweden or a funny tragedy about dying here," this work sits solidly within the Stanislavsky tradition: a midsummer's gathering, set in a gorgeously leafy landscape, of closely knit friends and family members whose soulful words and dysfunctional behavior comment on the self-deceptions and illusions of Swedes in pursuit of the substance of life.
Issues of gender, feminism and power curdle in the tense, claustrophobic Where Is Everybody?, produced by the mammoth and multi-pronged Riksteatern, Sweden's national touring theatre, whose aim is to give people all over the country access to high-quality draws. This debut work from Mirja Unge confidently lays out the tense silences, painful torment and guilt-ridden emotions that rend apart two young women, one of whom witnessed the other being raped by two boys at a roadside diner in a small Swedish town but did nothing about it. A chamber drama firmly in keeping with introverted realism (a Swedish staple that goes as far back as Strindberg and is as current as Norén), Where Is Everybody? doesn't break new ground, but Unge's unblinking gaze at the knotty emotional lives of young women was graced by the finely wrought performances of the two leads, Maria Sundborn and Julia Högberg.
One powerful way out of the Stanislavskian prison and chamber-drama cul-de sac has been the remarkable dominance of theatres for youth in Sweden. While the mainstream cultures of Britain and the U.S. have marginalized this field as either an easy-to-ignore but necessary appendage or a specialized nursery for writers on their way to maturity, in Sweden theatrical works geared for young people are viewed not just as equal to adult-oriented theatre but in many cases as surpassingly livelier than it. For complex reasons, innovations and experimentations in dramaturgy-strong themes (such as divorce, death, politics), bolder forms, openness to outside influences-have made it possible for youth-oriented dramas to shatter conventions and overturn orthodoxies in liberating ways that established dramatists largely don't.
This progressive orientation has had an incalculable impact on the larger Swedish culture. Much of the most popular contemporary Swedish literature consists of coming-of-age novels, for instance. State-funded institutions have followed the model of artistically independent theatre groups for young people, such as Suzanne Osten's Unga Klara in Stockholm, by creating their own departments for youth theatre. In tandem with the joie de vivre of independent children's theatre groups employing mime and physical theatre in their repertoire, the Royal Dramatic Theatre (Dramaten) in Stockholm and Cirkus Cirkör recently collaborated on a nouveau-cirque-style Romeo and Juliet that was an extravagant hit with the Swedish public. (Scenic designs from Cirkus Cirkör's theatrically oriented works were the theme of the Swedish pavilion at the 2007 Prague Quadrennial.) The search for an advanced formal idiom among the "Pippi Longstocking" youth theatres has strongly influenced hybrid creations steeped in dance and puppetry. During my visit to Stockholm, the Swedish dancemaker Mats Ek and the American puppeteer Roman Paska both had new interpretations of August Strindberg's A Dream Play at Dramaten and Stockholms Stadsteater, respectively. (Paska's staging was entrancing, musically tinged and indescribably beautiful.)
To stress the significant influence of youth-theatre on adult dramaturgy, five of the 14 plays selected for the biennial were originally geared for children. One, Staffan Göthe's Stuffed Dog, a landmark of Swedish drama, had been committed to film and was presented at a screening. Göthe's nostalgic portrait of the bleak idylls of small-town life and the modern inferno of the urban living had been broadcast on Swedish public television in a richly atmospheric adaptation by Kristina Humle and Antonia Pyk. The jury critics noted that the production "shows that it is possible to develop the art of theatre on television, that one can make a cinematic television theatre that lifts both the language of the stage and that of the image simultaneously."
Of the four other works, Dramaten's Young Theatre's The Getaway Car by Anders Duus was a no-show, raising once again the question of why the national theatre has consistently ignored the biennial's invitations. MasthuggsTeatern of Gothenburg's slight but ingratiating An Ordinary Kitchen Sink was virtually wordless. Featuring a suburban man and a woman in pajamas trying to dress for work, it is a movement-based comedy about the circadian rhythms of waking up in the morning: the clicking of spoons, the sound of spreading jam on toast, the fanfare of cornflakes in a bowl, the samba of aluminum pots and pans, the foot-tapping spirit of brushing one's teeth, the tossing of apples and newspapers into a brown paper bag.
The remaining two plays-The Day Dan Died and Now You're God Again-took counterpoint approaches to questioning the true nature of being and the existence of God (both perennial Swedish subjects). Duus's Now You're God Again, produced by Unga Riks, the youth theatre division of Riksteatern, is a gently constructed two-hander about two students, the class bully and the school's most popular girl, who on a drearily rainy day are trapped in an object-strewn classroom after they've both been kicked out of their religious studies class. It handles the subject of God's silence and absence with a light touch and quiet optimism, as opposed to the usual sturm und drang of heavy-lidded Swedish moral dramas. On the other hand, Rasmus Lindberg's The Day Dan Died chronicles the frantic and absurd events that happen during one seemingly ordinary day in the peculiar lives of six Swedes (including a young woman leaving her boyfriend, an older woman with a lump on her face, a parish priest who has lost faith in God)-and before and after the death of a runaway dog named Dan. Produced by Länsteatern i Jämtland Härjedalen, the youngest of Sweden's regional theatres, Lindberg's episodic farce, which ends on an image of magic-realist flight (the woman jumps off a bridge but mysteriously floats in the sky), was praised for being "breathtakingly original."
Since Sweden is considered one of the world's most democratic and egalitarian nations, the most pertinent issues new Swedish drama confronts lie in the areas of social and political criticism. Although the conventional wisdom is that these currents have lost ground in Scandinavian drama since the 1970s, the political Dreams of Dying (As a Swede with High Credibility), the documentary play The Mental States of Gothenburg and the hit tragicomedy Invasion! tackle extremely relevant subjects that offer deep insights into the contemporary Swedish gestalt. In particular, the bitter, melancholic heart of Dreams of Dying burned through, since the playwright Dennis Magnusson structured this drama about a politician's arrogant devotion to power as a dream-like flight that takes place at the precipice of his attempt to commit suicide. Loosely based on the true story of Göran Persson, it dramatizes the loss of trust and faith in an unpopular prime minister's leadership that led to the defeat of the Social Democrats and the rise of the center-right coalition. (It was a radical break: The Social Democrats held power for all but nine years since 1932.) Worn-out, hounded by the media, his government rocked by scandals, the unscrupulous prime minister faces his greatest demons, which include his failure to reach out to his angry, alienated, rock-head daughter. Teater Terrier premiered Dreams of Dying in Malmö around the time of the 2006 parliament elections.
Whether in documentary or fiction, existential questions about life and God continue to beleaguer Swedish artists. In creating The Mental States of Gothenburg, the playwright and director Mattias Andersson asked 10 people (in their twenties) from various districts of Sweden's second biggest city a typical series of questions about the meaning of life: "Is there an event in your life you would wish to see played on the stage?" one question goes. Angereds Nya Teater's barebones presentation (a square formed by the actors and audience) is a soulful group portrait about growing up in a Scandinavian seaport whose image to the world as a dreary worker's city has given way to that of a hip, tough, raffish haven for creative types, college kids and fun-seekers. As is typical with the documentary form, the playwright questions his own role and his right to use these young persons' stories; in an amusing touch, the program bills the text as being precisely "13 percent" authored by Andersson.
To understand why Invasion! has become the runaway sensation of Stockholms Stadsteater since its 2006 debut, picture this: In a bar in an immigrant suburb of Stockholm, a handsome young Middle Easterner hits on a female graduate student. The guy, who works as a telemarketer, introduces himself as "Abul Kasem." Faking interest, she hands him a made-up phone number. Later, in Jonas Hassen Khemiri's gloriously fragmented comedy, the girl (a Swedish Kurd) is seen desperately trying to remember the guy's name to her classmates; in a brief panic, she lets slip the name "Abul Kasem" and claims that the guy in pursuit of her was actually a world-famous Muslim film director. Meanwhile, a group of present-day Swedish teenagers-who've just seen a performance of Carl Jonas Love Almqvist's 1835 play Signora Luna, about a brave Moorish warrior named Abulkasem from North Africa (which is in turn based on a legendary Arab character in 1,001 Nights)-are so besotted by this exotic oriental figure that they toy with and twist the name into parodies, making up slang words that seem to mean or refer to practically anything. As each of Khemiri's dozen characters exploit the name of Abulkasem for their own purposes, the nonsensical game of mix-ups and misrepresentations gets wilder and more riotous: Who is this Abul Kasem? A gay disco dancer, someone blurts out. A TV talk-show panel of Euro-American intellectual experts (some with CIA and FBI affiliations) claims that "Abulkasem" is a terrorist mastermind. Inventively staged by Farnaz Arbabi (a giant red slide bisects the sandbox playfulness), Invasion! soon turns paranoid when a middle-aged Iranian refugee, hiding from Swedish immigration authorities, starts receiving countless phone calls from one "Abul Kasem"-the telemarketer who is convinced the girl is avoiding him. Terrified, the Iranian burns his own fingertips so that there is absolutely no way that the Swedish state can identify him, determine his nationality and send him back to Iran.
Born in Stockholm to a Swedish mother and a Tunisian father, the 29-year-old Khemiri is Sweden's new poster boy for second and third-generation immigrant writers (invandrarlitteratur) whose multicultural backgrounds, individuality and literary polyvalence have been invigorating the county's national literature. Along with Invasion!, his hugely popular novels, One Eye Red and Montecore: En unik tiger have trucked in freshly pertinent themes, nonwhite characters, wider fields of reference and a dazzlingly innovative treatment of language. Wrongly, he has been touted as an immigrant voice. In fact, Khemiri is carving out a space for his own verbal pyrotechnics. His characters speak Swedish perfectly, Khemiri points out, but they aim to give the impression of speaking incorrectly. Through conscious constructions and non-standard grammar, their made-up talk seeks to dissect the Swedish language and, by extension, broaden the confines of what constitutes Nordic literature. Invasion!'s obsessive confusions over the mystery of "Abul Kasem" (the specter who never appears in the play) expose the larger issues of cultural integration in Western Europe. In essence, "Abul Kasem" is a cipher, a projection of the fears, anxieties and prejudices that have been attached to all non-Europeans in the era of Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. The play is an intelligent critique of the Swedish welfare state, where new immigrant groups and refugees from Iraq are fighting for their right to exist.
Ethnic diversity is already a reality in the streets of Sweden, and Invasion! is part of a new trend of Arab-themed and multicultural theatre sweeping the country. (Even Mattias Andersson recently mentored five young people to write texts about identity and prejudice, raising questions about "the new Sweden"-does it exist? If so, where is it?) Since Sweden has been a homogenously white population for so long, perhaps it comes as no surprise that a 2004 Department of Culture report stated that one-fifth of the Swedish population that come from a foreign origin are not represented in the country's cultural life. Sweden's ambition of the moment is to coordinate and support efforts that would allow for greater ethnic participation and representation on the stage.
Randy Gener is a New York City-based writer, playwright, critic, scholar and editor. He is the author of the plays "Love Seats for Virginia Woolf" and "What Remains of a Rembrandt Torn into Four Pieces," among other theatre works. A contributor to the encyclopedia "Cambridge Guide to American Theatre," he is the senior editor of American Theatre magazine, published monthly by Theatre Communications Group in New York City. This article first appeared in the January 2008 edition of American Theatre magazine, published monthly by Theatre Communications Group in New York City. This article has been reproduced here with the permission of the author.