Swedish icons 20: Julia Caesar

The legendary actress Julia Caesar was born in 1885 in Stockholm. And yes, that was her real name – Julia Maria Vilhelmina Caesar.

From a young age, she became typecast in the roles she was given, and frequently played the opinionated but loveable, old woman – often in comedies. They could be a mother in law, a cook, a nosy neighbour or a housekeeper – but they were always a battleax who were outspoken and candid. They weren’t always two dimensional characters, however. In many cases, she depicted strong feminist views and railed against the patriarchy.

You might not have heard of Julia Caesar, but she was a very popular and prolific actor with a career that spanned over 60 decades. In fact, she holds the record for the Swedish actress who has appeared in most films – 136 of them. In addition to this, she played many classic theatre roles and performed in reviews and cabaret.

Julia Caesar was enormously loved and had a huge following – she was an institution in Swedish theatre and film. In the Stockholm park area of Tanto, where she frequently performed in the outdoor theatre, there is a street named after her.

She died in Stockholm in 1971, aged 86. Privately, she lived a discrete life together with opera singer Frida Falk. Although Frida died 23 years prior to Julia Caesar, they are buried together in Caesar’s family grave in the cemetery of Bromma Church.

Shakespeare in Sweden

Today 23 April is the anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare. The literary giant died this day in 1616, aged 52. Shakespeare was world-famous for his many plays and sonnets – one of his most noted works being based in Denmark. But what about Sweden’s relationship to the Bard of Avon?

The Swedes were initiated into the poetic musings of Shakespeare in 1592, but he didn’t gain popularity until some 150 years later. The first translation into Swedish came in 1813 and was of the macabre Macbeth. Today, Shakespeare is the second-most frequently produced playwright in Sweden. Not surprisingly August Strindberg is in first place. Romeo and Juliet seems to be the most popular play to produce, followed by Twelfth Night and Hamlet.

Three of my most memorable theatre experiences in Sweden were in fact Shakespeare. The first was at Drottningholm Palace Theatre outside of Stockholm. This amazing theatre, built in 1766 is the world’s oldest preserved theatre. Still in its original condition, with its original mechanical stage, it is a wonder to behold. In the lush gardens of the theatre I watched a performance of Macbeth – around Midsummer time. The Scandinavian blue lit background and the (luckily) balmy weather contributed to a magical evening.

The second experience was Richard III, starring the charismatic actor Rikard Wolff. The play was performed at Stockholm’s Stadsteater where we, the audience, sat in a rotating auditorium, like a fairground ride. As the play progressed, we spun around to witness scenes that were gruesome and beautiful in equal measure.

The most memorable, however, was when I was visiting the Ice Hotel in Jukkasjärvi in Swedish Lappland. The year I was there, they had built a replica of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre completely in ice, on the edge of the Torneå river. Like the original, it was open to the heavens. There I sat, wrapped in thermal clothes in minus temperatures, on a block of ice covered in reindeer skin, and watched a performance of Hamlet in Sami. As the play progressed, the sky shifted colour and fat flakes of snow fell down onto the proceedings. It was one of the most remarkable and memorable experiences I’ve ever had. During the interval, we retreated to the ice bar, and drank vodka shots from ice glasses. A few months later and the theatre ceased to exist – it melted back into the river.

What is your most memorable experience of a Shakespeare performance?

Swedish icons 13: Max von Sydow

What words can be used to describe Swedish acting legend Max von Sydow’s career? Extensive? Impressive? Formidable? Whatever the word, there is no doubt that this man, whose career spanned 70 years, is a true Swedish icon.

In 1929, Carl Adolph von Sydow was born into an academic family in the university town of Lund. In early adult life, he moved to Stockholm to start studying at Sweden’s Royal Dramatic Theater in Stockholm. Here, he also took the name Max as people kept spelling his name incorrectly.

Max von Sydow’s career spanned theater, television, many genres and over 150 movies. To some he is known as an Ingemar Bergman actor, and especially known for playing chess with death in The Seventh Seal. In total, he starred in 11 Bergman films.

To others he’s known as the actor who played Karl Oskar in the epic Swedish film series The Emigrants about poor Swedes who emigrate from Småland, Sweden, to Minnesota in the mid-19th century.

To mention some other films, he starred in classics such as The Greatest Story Ever Told, The Exorcist, Flash Gordon, Pelle the Conqueror, Dune, Hannah and Her Sisters, The Quiller Memorandum, Minority Report, Never Say Never Again, Shutter Island, Robin Hood and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Younger generations might remember him as the enigmatic Three-Eyed Raven in HBO’s Game of Thrones.

Max von Sydow had a enormously successful international career. But it wasn’t always destined to be so. Early on, he was satisfied with his life in Sweden, and consequently turned down iconic roles such as Captain Von Trapp in The Sound of Music and Dr No.

Towards the end of his life, Max von Sydow became a French citizen and had to relinquish his Swedish passport. He died in Provence and was survived by his wife and four sons.

Wilkommen, bienvenue, welcome – to Sweden….

Cabaret_Trio

Last night I went to a performance of ‘Cabaret’ at Stockholm’s ‘Stadsteatern’. Starring popular singer, Sarah Dawn Finer, the story never felt more relevant. Set in and around the decadent Kit Kat Club, the familiar story depicts the slow and insidious growth of Nazism in pre-war Germany. As Hitler’s politics start to become more accepted, life initially goes on as usual inside the nightclub. But slowly, even the performers  cannot ignore the hardening attitudes, the anti-semitism and what is necessary to survive.  As the Nazis rise to power, and ‘Germanness’ falls into focus, the characters have to make a choice: stay or go.

One of the main characters is an American author based in Berlin. As he is confronted by the rise of Nazism he stands up against it saying ‘if you don’t stand against it, you stand with it’. Somewhat remniscent of a US President in a speech against terrorism, this hit a raw nerve. Just because we are not actively and vocally against something, does it really mean that we are for it? Is it that black and white?

As right-wing politics yet again take hold in Europe, what can we learn from the past? If we stand by and say nothing, do nothing, are we in effect accepting it? Are we saying it’s ok? And if we don’t stand up for others, who will stand up for us when we need it?

In the musical Cabaret, we see the nightclub as a metaphor of Berlin, slowly falling more and more under the influence of dark powers. We see the characters numb themselves in alcohol and we see one main character bend to the norms of society by demonstratively removing his makeup – stripped of his uniqueness and his humanity.

Never has it felt more relevant than today. ‘You are not German’ is today expressed as ‘You are not European‘ or ‘You are not Swedish’. And as I was consumed in the musical, I thought to myself, can we do it differently this time? Can we beat the negative forces in society and come out of it victorious? Or are condemned to repeat the mistakes of the past?