Stockholm Syndrome, in the case of Red Stitch’s new play Stockholm, has been used as a disturbing analogy to diagnose abusive lovers’ entanglements. When two damaged people join in a kind of unholy matrimony, things can go awry easily, and according to ensemble actor Brett Cousins, growing to love your captor is the perfect allegory. “Your captor in this case is your partner, who you love. But who you also potentially want to…” he pauses to ruminate, as he considers the weight of his next statement, “…rip their face off.”
These violent terms are specific to the play. Speaking to Cousins on the eve of the its premiere, he says, “It happens almost literally in [Stockholm], but it’s about why we come back to people who perhaps punish us over and over again, or will destroy each other over and over again with a cycle of sex and violence. And when you’ve got that much sex and violence [it creates] a sort of co-dependence. You become addicted to it, the drama – or some could argue the purity to it.”
Cousins does relate that he’s used his own experiences to inform the role. Though now ensconced happily in a healthy marriage his younger years were marred by experiences of jealousy and possessiveness, something we can all identify with and which he necessarily mined to give his character life. Not an easy process.
“There’s a lot of conversation in the rehearsal room about what we’ve been through and it really does – I imagine most people would come and see a ring of truth to at least elements of the play. But we are definitely drawing on our past personal, physical, sexual experiences. All of us. The director - everyone. “
Sometimes erotic, sometimes macabre, the story of two young lovers plumbs both the depths and heights of relationships – their excitement, whimsy and ecstasy; their potential abuses and entrapments. “It’s a beautiful play I think,” says Cousins. “Because of the way it’s written and the way it’s movement oriented – there’s lovely tender moments and some funny moments in the play. But I think at the core of it there’s some really troubling issues that [playwright Briony Lavery] is trying to address.“
Performing scenes classed as “erotic” or “violent” is certainly a test for an actor. Far from an insipid role, his ability to throw himself into a part like this shows he and co-star Luisa Hastings Edge are worth their acting salt. Was it uncomfortable, I ask? “Uncomfortable – yes. I mean, there’s some violence in it. Real violence, and there’s sexual stuff. That would have been far more uncomfortable if Lu and I hadn’t found a trust.”
And the actors who play these demanding parts were virtual strangers before they began working together. But his familiarly with his co-star now is obvious, considering the varying familiar colloquial terms he uses to name her. “There were challenges with Lulu and I. We’ve gotten along really well, and gone to the places we have to go. If you’re not in a place personally where you can move forward you’re really stuffed from the beginning. But we’ve found that understanding and that trust between us so that’s been good.”
Reaching this goal did take up much of their five weeks training for the role, according to Cousins. “Infamous” director Tanya Girstle pushed them both to their physical and emotional limits, a taxing experience for the actors. “We’ve been met deep in this and she asks a lot of her actors, was the advice I got when I did my homework on her. She’s awesome, but she will push you to your limits and that’s what’s happened.
“But you need to be very flexible as an actor, and very adaptable and malleable. You’ve got to be able to leap great emotional distances in a short time. So that’s been really challenging. Especially working on pieces of the play and putting them all together, needing that dexterity has really been a big challenge.”
Perhaps the most interesting aspect is the intent of the playwright. Whether she’s a brilliant writer of fiction or has been involved in a similar romantic-hostage situation remains to be seen. Beneath its flourishes in movement, a reincarnation of what was originally a movement and musical place, there’s no doubt the piece is deeply dark. “I think [Briony Lavery] is interested in how things can get out of control. How relationships can go to places because of that addiction to sex and violence and drama and discordance.”
Perhaps though, Cousins says there’s a message. “Especially when you’re growing up you do get into situations and relationships where you go through jealousy and possessiveness and dysfunction. But you look back and you learn to understand what a healthy relationship is. There’s certainly things that, relationship situations I was in and I tolerated that – things I did that I would never do now. It’s part of growing up. You learn from them.”
BY BELLA ARNOTT-HOARE
Stockholm plays at Red Stitch Actors Theatre from Friday April 27 – Saturday May 26.