In the latest in her series about relocating to Sweden, Duška Radosavljević Krojer pays her first visit to the theatre – to see Oliver Frljić’s Scandanavian debut.
I have been thinking a lot about how theatre is a ‘home’. How when you are a person with a live link to theatre (either as a maker or an audience member) you can find home more easily. Or at least a sense of home, a sense of temporary idyllic moorings. And I am not talking about theatre as a building.
Since I’ve come to Sweden, I have often repeated the story of the German theatre-maker Mathias Lilienthal and how during his short-lived tenure as Artistic Director at the Munich Kammerspiele, which coincided with the migrant crisis of the mid 2010s, he swung open the doors of his theatre to Syrian refugees from all walks of life. The Munich Kammerspiele is an interesting place because, on the one hand it is the theatre famous for its early links to Brecht and the accompanying leftism built into its DNA; on the other hand it is located on Munich’s most expensive shopping street – a potential implicit barrier to certain segments of the society that this theatre aims to reach. Lilienthal added to this complexity by also making the bar in front of the theatre the haunt of the Middle Eastern migrants by regularly programming events – poetry evenings, concerts, and even fashion shows – aimed at the migrant demographic.
By contrast, in Sweden and specifically the city of Malmö which, as I have written before, has taken in comparatively the greatest number of Syrian and Afghan refugees in Western Europe, the local theatres’ repertoire is still by and large dominated by the classics of the dramatic tradition or contemporary works reliant on the audience’s knowledge of Swedish. While surtitles are a norm in many European theatre cities with international outlook, I have not yet detected many such options while browsing the listings in southern Sweden or even Denmark, except perhaps some shows programmed as part of festivals. In a regular theatre-going year, the sum total of my theatre stubs easily reaches three-digit numbers, but in the course of 2022 in Sweden, I have seen the total of two: one experimental dance show by a Portuguese artist and one cabaret by the British double act Flo & Jo programmed as part of the annual Lund comedy festival. With so little theatre in my daily life, homesickness has been a real thing.
So, when an opportunity presented itself to see a new production by Oliver Frljić in Stockholm, the mere requirement of a five-hour train journey into the deep Swedish winter, through snow covered forests, ice-kitted train tracks, and the plummeting length of daytime – in order to see a show that, as it happens, is a lot about darkness – was a particular high!
Theatregoing, like home-coming, is of course about the surrounding experiences as much as it is about the destination itself. Travelling, surrendering to the excitement of travel itself, locating unusual hotels that call themselves ‘unique’, and in a situation like this one, perhaps also permitting oneself extended chatty mealtimes with chosen companions, other theatre migrants – one, a new friend quietly marking a 40-somethingth birthday while going through a hard time; another, a stranger whose generosity turns her into a newly found relative of the soul – various paths crossing here temporarily. Talking – in Nordic candlelight, in between sips of wine, and mouthfuls of salty fish – of roots and languages, partners and children, wellbeing maintenance and deaths which are impossible to comprehend from such distance.
That is the context in which I see Oliver Frljić’s Scandinavian directorial debut (which is also my first piece of theatre in Sweden) – an adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment at Sweden’s equivalent of the national theatre, the Dramaten. Much can already be read into and inferred from this specific choice of text in the year 2022 by a director renowned for his punk beginnings in Croatia and Poland, and for his current affiliation to the Berlin centre of ‘post-migrant theatre’, the Maxim Gorki. But, arriving to the press night as a guest rather than with a magazine accreditation, I am not on an assignment. I am on a kind of homecoming, a kind of reunion where the purpose is experience rather than interpretation.
I am *just* going to the theatre, and incidentally also encountering increasing numbers of people in the foyer with whom I can speak in my native tongue. So I comfort myself it does not matter so much that my Swedish is far too weak to follow the dialogue which is unexpectedly fast-paced for a narrative I remember as being a lot about feverish solitary reckonings. I try and let the dynamics of the action and the measured classical music underscore carry me along. I try to slide and submerge myself in the carefully crafted, all-engulfing atmosphere. At least despite my language barrier I am crystal clear on who is playing which character, what is going on action-wise, and which scene we are in. Because I have learnt Swedish words for ‘money’- ‘pengar’ and ‘to marry’- ‘att gifta sig’, I am more acutely aware of just how key these narrative elements are here.
I consider other tools I have for understanding what I am seeing. I had read Dostoyevsky’s novel twice: once when I was a teenager, in Serbian, helplessly gripped by its literary engendering of a psychological delirium, the second time when I was thirty, in English, still possessed but also struck by the occasional pre-Realist porosity of the narrative – characters cropping up out of nowhere, seemingly walking through the walls of Raskolnikov’s room and intruding on his privacy. Since then I have also once visited St Petersburg and the museum posing as Raskolnikov’s lodgings where fans from all over the world had grafitiied their messages to the fictional character. Interestingly, the first poster for the Dramaten show I spotted outside the theatre was similarly defaced.
I am thinking about how Bakhtin had framed Dostoyevsky as a poster boy of modernity by virtue of the fact that he invented ‘dialogic consciousness’ in prose – the way in which the characters assume their own lives over and beyond the limits of the author’s design. This is independently corroborated by the Wikipedia entry about the historical circumstances of the novel’s construction which I read on my train journey up to Stockholm, and which testifies to the fact the novel grew out of a single article in a literary magazine and then expanded multiple times into uncharted territories. The poster for the show does have Raskolnikov on it, but possibly because I have posthumanist feminists on my mind at this time, I am particularly struck by the suffering of the female characters both in Dostoyevsky’s synopsis and in Oliver’s show – the ways in which daughters are commodified and the ways in which their mothers are humiliated.
Oliver’s staging of this world is anything but attempting a realist or even a particularly materialist depiction. The set (designed by Igor Pauška) is a spare, minimalist black and white construction with splashes of red in which only a wooden table and two chairs are often enough to hold a scene, an occasional revolve or a glide-on wooden podium adding some well-judged shifts of scale and beguiling elegance to the proceedings. Raskolnikov’s ultimate redeemer Sonia’s first appearance as an unfortunate daughter of the drunkard Marmeladov forced to prostitute herself, is represented wordlessly in one of the most memorable images of the production, through Zdravka Ivandija Kirigin’s costume design, where the character’s crinoline frame is inverted over her head and red tulle flowers plucked from its inner surface by a chorus of hands.
Eventually the items of wooden furniture themselves enlarge before our eyes to dwarf the protagonists’ suffering with their sheer banality. Those small illogiclities of the narrative I remember from my second reading are here simply seized upon as an opportunity to speed things up; they are made elegant, dreamlike, or irrelevant. The piece as a whole is framed by the conversations between Raskolnikov and his nemesis, detective Porfiry. The actual murder of the pawnbroker, rather than being the inciting incident as it is in Dostoyevsky, is a magnificent tragic centrepiece within the dramaturgy of this adaptation – another striking image of blood soaking through and sliding down a giant white skirt.
For the second half my viewing experience is completely transformed by the discovery that I can follow live subtitles in English via a phone app called Thea. This is a true testament to Swedish inventiveness that certainly has the potential to make the language barrier in theatre a thing of the past if it takes off more widely. It also makes the second half of the show flow more easily for me though I do miss some of the visual experience…
After the flower-weighted curtain call, among jubilatiant embraces, red velvet interiors, the opening night finery, and sparkling glasses of champagne, I incidentally find out Oliver had planned to use the Russian classic as a prompt for conversations with his cast and, by extension, the Swedish audience about the cancellation of Russian culture due to the war in Ukraine. But this impulse was decidedly thwarted by the actors’ consensus to the contrary.
Because I have had a helpful peak at an early English version of Oliver’s script, with thanks to the show’s translator Anders who also happens to be a long-lost acquaintance of mine, I now know there had been an intention to explore two possible endings to the piece – one in which Raskolnikov’s sister Dunia shoots her blackmailing suitor Svidrigailov, and one in which she lets him walk away (both present in fact as events in Dostoyevsky’s novel). The final stage version elides both possibilities by resorting instead to a deus ex machina – a thematically relevant theatrical play of lighting and darkness – and dissolving the ongoing narrative proceedings into a highly symbolic musical sequence. In it all members of the cast are ushered into an oversize cupboard as they sing a choral ode to the sun, and are eventually shut in by the ultimate new protagonist – the other, prepubescent Marmeladov daughter, Polenka.
It is a happy ending of sorts, but not one that lets the audience off the hook. As Polenka migrates off the stage into the unknown, hopefully freed (?) from the trappings of the tradition, we are left with the revolving image of a museum-like chiaroscuro consisting of antique furniture, a giant axe, and several crucifixes – a potent depiction of what happens when a story cannot escape its culture’s impulse for conservation.
Whichever culture that happens to be.
Read the first part of Duška Radosavljević Krojer’s Migration Diary: An Improvised Life, the second part Language Lessons, the third part In Search of Strindberg and the most recent instalment A question of culture
Further reading: Oliver Frljić interview: “Theatre is what happens in the heads of the audience”
Duška Radosavljević Krojer is a writer, dramaturg and academic. She is the author of award-winning academic monograph Theatre-Making: Interplay Between Text and Performance in the 21st Century (2013) and editor of Theatre Criticism: Changing Landscapes (2016) and the Contemporary Ensemble: Interviews with Theatre-Makers (2013). Her work has been funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council in the UK multiple times including for www.auralia.space (2020-21) and The Mums and Babies Ensemble (2015). She is a regular contributor to The Stage, Exeunt and The Theatre Times.