Venue reviews: Stockholm at the UEA Drama Studio

Magazines and baby clothes are suspended over the left side of the stage at the UEA Drama Studio, and on the right dangles a row of knives. Are these the possible outcomes of a modern relationship? With main characters Todd and Kali, we are never quite sure whether they are moving in the direction of domestic bliss or violence. At first they appear to be as enamoured with each other as only new couples can be as they swoon around the stage to the sound of Stevie Wonder and Lana Del Rey, but we soon realise that their mutual obsession is unhealthy, bordering on dangerous.

Bryony Lavery’s 2007 play gets its name from the city that seems to be a sort of lifebuoy to Kali. Obsessed with Sweden’s language and culture, the young couple are perpetually planning a trip to the capital, always with the hope that such an outing will save their toxic relationship. The play is therefore littered with anglicised Swedish references; Kali and Todd talk dirty by imitating the Swedish Chef (“Schmergly berghly… a fuck?”) and watch films directed by Ingmar Bergman, known for his intense portrayals of failing relationships and deteriorating psyche.

However, the title is also an obvious reference to the Stockholm syndrome, the condition that makes hostages sympathise with their captors, and Kali’s longing for the Swedish city turns sinister as the couple’s loved-up interactions begin to resemble a hostage situation. They argue over Kali’s “retro-jealousy”; she becomes increasingly controlling and digs into Todd’s past in search of former betrayals. “Retro-jealousy over past lovers is a waste of cosmic time”, Todd pleads, but this doesn’t stop Kali from methodically going through the list of contacts on his phone, or dreaming up inventions that would help her access her partner’s innermost feelings, to know what he really thinks.

Director Katie Suitor has made the decision to have ten actors play Todd and Kali. This appears confusing at first, but soon becomes a very effective way of depicting the shifting dynamic between the two. Clad in neutral grey, each couple have particular likes and dislikes, they obsess over different things and react differently to each other, indicating how we are different people at different times, even, or perhaps especially, with the people we love. One couple at the time acts out scenes from Todd and Kali’s life, while the remaining eight actors serve almost as a grey-clad chorus to the scenes of lust, jealousy, and eventual violence.

The play makes use of two different narrative techniques; at certain moments in the play, the couples step out of their normal interactions and describe what is happening in the third person. This method is most effective when they describe scenes of violence; “It’s actually a relief, the violence” Todd tells us from the floor, and explains how the bones in the fingers mend “surprisingly quickly.” The ensemble succeeds in portraying the intense emotions that pulsate at the heart of Todd and Kali’s relationship; erotic love is expressed through acrobatic dance, and their fights are described with eerie detachment: “And then, incredibly rapidly, she claws her face.”

Friends and family are trying to reach them, but Kali is in full control of Todd’s phone, and he want his parents to leave them alone so that they can be together, just the two of them. The more antagonistic they become, the more they cling to each other; in the end we see them handcuffed together and covered in blood, and it becomes clear that not even the capital of the world’s most stable democracy can mend Todd and Kali’s relationship.

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