Lettice and Lovage - theatre by Peter Shaffer
Vanessa Poole in an English actress who’s been living in Sweden for the last 20 years. She works with English theatre in Malmö, Sweden and Copenhagen, Denmark, where she helps run two newly established theatre companies. One of them is Playmate Theatre, Malmö, and the other is Down the Rabbit Hole Theatre, Copenhagen.
Since spring 2017 Vanessa, along with her colleagues Kevin Benn and Robin Gott, have been in the process of trying to establish a season of quality English language theatre, particularly in Malmö, where she is based, as there had been no English language theatre of any kind in the south of Sweden.
Now, Playmate Theatre is hosting their third English language play in Malmö at Bastionen, Lettice and Lovage, by Peter Shaffer, which is a very British comedy play.
Can you give us a brief insight and history of the play?
As one critic said "If this is not Prince Charles’s favourite play, it should be. “
Lettice and Lovage was nominated for the 1990 Tony Award for Best Play and Best Direction on Broadway. It gave both female leads – Maggie Smith and Margaret Tyzack - Tonies for their performances, the play is described as "an evening of enchantment and delight."
It tells the story of a flamboyant tour guide Lettice Douffet, who tired of boring her tourists, decides instead to embellish the history behind an English country house with great success, but ends up getting fired by her straitlaced employer Lotte Schoen, for doing so. The play centres on the oddly charming relationship that develops afterwards between these two delightful but very different English ladies, as they struggle to face a threatening world of modern technology and increasing ugliness.
Lettice and Lotte it turns out are a gentle odd couple, united by a love of history, classical architecture and a tendency to dress up! - laced with copious amounts of Elizabethan cordial – made not least from vodka and lovage – an Old English Tudor herb.
The play is funny, a very English and witty comedy. It became a runaway success at the Globe Theatre, one of the longer runs in theatrical history.
The title role Lettice Douffet when played by Maggie Smith was a triumph, which “instantly floods a world of gray with colour”. Lettice and Lovage was Shaffer’s first comedy work in over 20 years. Shaffer had previously built his reputation as a master of drama with an entire generation of theatre goers.
After the film Amadeus, Shaffer had also apparently been criticised for taking liberties with historical accuracy in his version and he perhaps partly wrote Lettice and Lovage as retribution. This very theme is explored in Lettice and Lovage – how far can one go, what liberties can one take - to tell a whopping good story??
The play Lettice and Lovage was very recently revived in Britain, in May 2017 by renowned director Trevor Nunn, starring another two hugely popular and well-loved stars of the British stage and screen – Felicity Kendal and Maureen Lipman.
Lettice and Lovage has elements of slapstick, is a roaring and intellectual comedy - and yet also discusses interesting themes about the fear of failure and success, loneliness, aging, unemployment, the value of friendship in the face of adversity.
One important issue in the play is the power of aesthetics in a world facing increasing ugliness. A world where the values of history, architecture and beauty are slowly being eroded and what two funny, middle-aged, intellectual ladies can do about it…. wielding an axe at the same time!
In essence these are two lonely, frustrated women, afraid of becoming obsolete. Bubbling under the surface are allusions to the borders of sexuality, terrorism, alienation, history and reality.
The play discusses the threat of increasing urbanisation and the decay of "civilisation" in an increasingly brutal world. But it does it gently and with whoops of laughter!
Shaffer actually revised the ending of the play when it transferred to Broadway, New York. In our version in Malmö, directed by Robin Gott, we have tried to keep a little of the flavour of both versions!
The play is written by Peter Shaffer. Can you please tell us a bit about Peter?
Every theatre-lover in the English-speaking world knows Peter Shaffer. He died last year aged 91, was knighted for his award-winning plays, and is one of the greats of contemporary British playwrights and screenwriters. He is best known for his enormously popular philosophical dramas - Equus (1973) - recently revived at the West End with a naked Daniel Radcliffe in the lead, The Royal Hunt of the Sun (1964) and for his satirical comedies, Five Finger Exercise (19 58 ), an actors' classic, Black Comedy (1965 ), as well as the screenplay for Amadeus, which won eight Academy Awards including Best Picture. But we at Playmate have chosen Shaffer's comedy masterpiece Lettice and Lovage. Our last 2 plays got full houses, we are keeping our fingers crossed!
Shaffer is himself the identical twin to his brother (who wrote the play Sleuth) and Shaffer’s plays often feature two contrasting but equal main characters, one passionate, one intellectual. In Amadeus there is the story of the relationship between Mozart, enfant terrible and the sinister, intellectual Salieri. In Equus we follow the mind of a 17-year-old stableboy who blinds horses in a fit of religious fanaticism, pitted against his cool psychiatrist. The Royal Hunt of the Sun (1964) presents the tragic conquest of Peru by the Spanish, pitting the Inca Chief Atahuallpa against the conquistador Pizarro.
So it is this twinness or duality that provides the drama, tension and dynamic exactly, as it does in our bubbling black comedy Lettice and Lovage, with the odd couple relationship of Lettice Douffet and Lotte Schoen.
The Play was originally specially written for Maggie Smith. What's the story behind this?
Shaffer wrote Lettice & Lovage in 1987 specifically as a vehicle for award-winning actress Maggie Smith who played the title role in both the British and American productions. Peter Shaffer wrote it, to quote him specifically “…to celebrate her (Maggie’s) extraordinary gifts, her glee and glitter and perfect timing and wit...” and because Maggie apparently complained to Peter that there were no good roles written for women of her age – then 53 - so he wrote the play for her!
Could you tell us about the cast Boel Marie Larsson, Vanessa Poole and Kevin Benn?
We at Playmate Theatre Malmö have given the title role of Lettice Douffet - not to Maggie Smith – we felt Maggie had already had her day as Lettice! - but to another great lady of the stage, closer to home in Malmö. Boel trained in the UK and at Teaterhögskolan, has superb comic timing and a lifetime of performance behind her on stage and screen, has appeared in both the Swedish and British versions of the Wallander TV series, she has worked with Kenneth Branagh, Billie August and also runs her own theatre company Thales Teater.
At Playmate we all knew Boel’s work on stage and had watched her in various things on Swedish television. Then during a workshop at Malmö Teaterhögskolan, Boel mentioned to me she thought it would be enormous fun to work together with Playmate, acting in English. I knew she speaks the language faultlessly, so once we got the offer, we decided to find Boel a role she really deserved!
Interestingly - Thales’ premier production ”Skallgång på Stora Glimminge” years ago, written and performed at Glimmingehus Castle by Boel , was in fact inspired precisely by Shaffer’s ”Lettice & Lovage” when Boel first came across the play in the UK. So once we placed Lettice Douffet in Boel’s capable hands, the story has now very happily come full circle.
Veteran Malmö stage performer, actor, storyteller and voiceover artist Kevin Benn, is well known to audiences in Malmö from his years of performing and particularly so with Teater 23. Kevin has over 26 theatre productions for schools under his belt and regularly tours southern Sweden with his award-winning childrens' play Nasse Hittar en Stol. He is the founding member of Playmate, and won over audiences for his storytelling technique as the antiquarian in Talking Heads at Bastionen in May. With his wry and gentle humour , Kevin is a perfect match for the genteel lawyer Bardolph who tries to save Lettice from her own devices.
I am one of the founding members of Playmate in its new English-language theatre form. A Malmö-based actress & voiceover artist, equally at home in drama or comedy roles. I do a great deal of acting in Copenhagen. I am really looking forward to playing the embittered and intriguing Lotte Schoen, a very different role to the Greek goddess in Venus in Fur that wowed audiences at Bastionen for Playmate, earlier this year and in Copenhagen.
Why did you decide to bring the play to Sweden?
Professional small-cast English language theatre company Playmate has been set up in Malmö, aiming to bring the best of English language theatre to southern Sweden. We are three British actors – living in Sweden – all of us with a lifetime’s experience in performance. We are hoping to establish a season of and build an audience for English language theatre in the region.
Lettice and Lovage is our third play this season at Bastionen. In May 2017 We put on Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads, the iconic, very British, intellectual tragi-comic monologues originally written for the BBC, which we performed also in Copenhagen to outstanding reviews and full houses.
In September we presented the powerful, sexy, American comedy thriller Venus in Fur by David Ives in collaboration with Down the Rabbithole Theatre in Copenhagen, also at Denmark’s newest English language theatre at HIT – House of International Theatre.
So in a varied first season for Playmate - after an intellectual play of social realism and black comedy in May, after a powerful, sexy American comedy-thriller in September - a bubbly, very British comedy like Lettice and Lovage seems a good choice for the cold, dark days of January.
What kind of theatre is Playmate hoping to do?
Good question! We are finding our way. Hopefully theatre that is interesting, entertaining, meaningful - powerful - and is always relevant to today. Theatre that surprises, has a twist and some element or level of humour. Humour is after all a very Anglo-Saxon thing! We have been fortunate to perform our first three plays at blackbox theatre Bastionen in Malmö, a fantastic space and perfect location just opposite the central station. We hope to be able to carry on doing so! Dates are planned for future productions in September 2018 and February 2019.
Why do you believe the Swedes will enjoy the British comedy?
I think - despite Brexit! – Swedes have an affection for the best of British humour and culture. Look how popular comedy sitcoms like the cult classics Monty Python, Blackadder, Fawlty Towers are on Swedish TV. Also, the costume dramas series – such as The Crown, Victoria, Poldark – Swedes love them. So I am hoping they will also love our very British, clever, smart and funny play, written by a master playwright. The language is at times quite lovely. The dialogue rapid-fire. Other times the play is pure slapstick. We are still grinning ourselves through rehearsals!
Who are you hoping the play will attract?
There are English-language theatres in Gothenburg and Stockholm. Why not Malmö? Malmö is an expanding and cosmopolitan region. Playmate also has close ties with successful English theatre in Copenhagen, which has a large audience already and we try to perform there too.
I 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.
Swedes also tend to speak and definitely understand English excellently and we hope that regular theatre goers in the whole of southern Sweden will see Playmate as an opportunity to hear original work, an alternative to what Swedish language theatre has to offer, as well as see Playmate as an alternative to the large dramatic institutions. Malmö has many newly arrived inhabitants, ex-pats and a tradition of fringe theatre companies. I hope we can provide a meeting point for culture and theatre-lovers of all types, backgrounds and ages. Our prices are more affordable too!
What makes the play unique?
This play celebrates a love of history, of architecture, of Britishness and of theatre. It is as clever as it is funny. The characters are loveable. Two women adrift in an alien world, feeling like outsiders and trying to find the courage to face their personal demons. That is something we can all relate to, Swedes and non-Swedes alike.
Lettice and Lovage is a gem for anglophiles but also easy to follow with visual comedy, delightful storytelling, whip sharp dialogue and it is performed in beautiful English. May I also remind you - Playmate is the only quality theatre available performing in English outside of Stockholm, Copenhagen or Gothenburg.
The performances of Lettice and Lovage by Peter Shaffer are in English. 18 – 20th January 2018
Study material in English about the play is available for groups or classes, booking to watch a performance.
"Lettice and Lovage" by Peter Shaffer is presented by special arrangement with SAMUEL FRENCH, LTD
Tickets are available:
Photos by Diego Monsiváis
Boel Marie Larsson
Boel Marie Larsson, actress and director, has spent a lifetime performing in a huge variety of comic and dramatic roles, from Goldoni to Shakespeare, including standup, Beowulf , puppetry, cabaret and childrens’ theatre. She has worked in film, TV and theatre, with directors such as Pernilla August, Bille August and Jan Troel, performing the length and breadth of Sweden, and at Wasa teater in Finland. Leading dramatic and comic roles include the Marquise de Merteuil in Dangerous Liaisons, Malvolio in ”Twelfth Night”, and Varieté Vauduvill which involved 2 summers of tapdancing, playing the fiddle and magic tricks!
Boel's many film appearances include Bille August’s ”Den goda viljan”. TV roles include Ann-Louise in ”Halvvägs till himlen”, several episodes of the Wallander series – both the English and Swedish, most recently ” The Troubled man”. Since 1993 Boel has run her own theatre company Thales Teater based in Österlen, which regularily performs and tours in southern Sweden. Thales’ premier production ”Skallgång på Stora Glimminge” performed at Glimmingehus Castle was in fact inspired precisely by Shaffer’s ”Lettice & Lovage” when Boel first came across the play in the UK. So Lettice Douffet in Boel’s capable hands, has now very happily come full circle.
Malmö-based actress & voiceover artist Vanessa Poole, is equally at home in drama or comedy roles. She played Max's mother for SVT/UR in the TV series “Max’s Movie”. In Denmark, she has been directed on stage by award-winning director Jeremy Thomas-Poulsen and she received critical acclaim for her roles in The Dining Room (2014), Pygmalion (2015), Elsie and Norm’s ‘Macbeth’ (2016) Venus in Fur (2017) and Lovers, Authors & other Strangers (2017). Vanessa also gained praise in Copenhagen for her performance in The City for Why Not Theatre and in Calendar Girls (2013). In Malmö she has appeared for ITM in Unveiling, The Shawl, Far Away and The Stronger. For Playmate Theatre Malmö, Vanessa played Lesley in Talking Heads in May (2017) and the female lead Vanda Jordan, in the successful Malmö and Copenhagen run of Venus in Fur (2017). Vanessa is also one of the founding and board members of Down the Rabbithole Theatre, the resident performing company at the House of International Theatre, both of which are in Copenhagen, Denmark.
Veteran Malmö stage performer, actor, storyteller and voiceover artist Kevin Benn, is well known to audiences in Malmö from his years of performing and particularly so with Teater 23. Kevin has over 26 theatre productions for schools under his belt and regularly tours southern Sweden with his award-winning childrens' play Nasse Hittar en Stol. For ITM - The International Theatre of Malmö - Kevin played the male lead in The Goat or Who is Sylvia? by Edward Albee (2010), and the lead in The Shawl by David Mamet, in Malmö & Lund, (2015). Previous roles in English include The Zoo Story by Edward Albee and Sweet Eros by Terence McNally, for KOKO-Teatern.
For his theatre company Playmate, of which he is the founding member - Kevin played the charming antiquarian in Talking Heads by Alan Bennett in Malmö and reprised the role at HIT- House of International Theatre in Copenhagen (2017).