The Enchantment is a collectors’ item of a production. Written by Victoria Benedictsson, who is almost unknown in Britain, an obscure but apparently influential writer (to Strindberg and Ibsen in particular), The Enchantment receives its UK premier at the Cottesloe Theatre. The play was written in 1888 and premiered after her death (by suicide, also in 1888) in her native Sweden in 1910. At the time Benedictsson wrote under a male pseudonym, so scandalous was it for a woman to write a sexually frank book or play. The plot has Louise Strandberg (Nancy Carroll), a young Swede, living a physically fragile but independent life in the company of ex-pat artists and friends in Paris. She has no talent or artistic ‘vocation’; she is just there to have a change from her stifling provincial background, in love with the freedoms of Paris. Then comes along a (supposedly) beguiling and charming sculptor Gustave Alland (Zubin Varla), who she promptly falls in love with. But of course he’s not the genuine article, but a user and deceiver well used to seducing and then dropping women. Erna Wallden (Niamh Cusack), Louise’s upstairs neighbour (a painter), has clearly had an acrimonious past with Gustave, but poor Louise’s doesn’t take heed of her veiled, and eventually explicit warnings. The end of the play echoes the authors own life, when Louise commits suicide (offstage) in a rather melodramatic final scene. Benedictisson has taken her relationship with a noted critic, and his rejection of her, as a starting point for this pay, but it never really takes flight or has a life of its own. I couldn’t take the sometimes quite overemotional (and premature) relationships depicted seriously, I wanted to tell the characters to calm down and stop making a fuss. Crucially I never really believed in the reasons for their (or specifically her) love, and the play was not compelling enough (or well written enough) to convey a sense of longing or lust between the main protagonists. The nearest I got to believing in someone onstage, was the bitter Erna; she did seem scarred by her past relationship with Gustave, but I really couldn’t see what either of them saw in him. The talk in the final scene (back in Paris) is of the difference between great geniuses and us normal folk; Louise has the idea that Gustave is so brilliant that her love for him was a beautiful blessing for her, despite the ultimate rejection by the object of that love. This theory of artistic difference is interesting, but Louise had clearly gone out of her mind by then, deciding that her love would be crowned by her death. Gustave also makes a last minute appearance, raising the prospect that ultimately he was prepared to renege and come back to Louise, which I thought was a bizarre way to end a play that had been so convincing in the traducing of the selfish artist previously.
I can imagine how controversial these frank representations of emotion and extra marital relationships were in the 1880’s, still a highly conservative society, but now they seem trite and overcomplicated, they lack the compelling social commentary or innate reality of Ibsen or Strindberg at their best. So despite this being an interesting piece in terms of the development of European drama, an interesting night out in 2007 it is not. It dose have its moments, particularly in the second act when the action moves along apace and we finally see her at home in Sweden. We see how stifling social convention, small town morality and gossip can be, but again that’s nothing that Ibsen didn’t do far better. The production itself is of a good standard, Paul Miller directing his cast with sobriety, but the drab in the round set by Simon Daw did little for me. Acting was generally flowing and consummately professional, without being particularly ardent. Carroll is good as the moody Louise, but Varla is charmless as Gustave, his intonation gave the impression that everything he said (often very high blown rhetoric) was either a question or a grand statement of fact. Cusack was very good as Erna giving a quietly intense (sometimes angry) performance, and Hugh Skinner as Louise’s handsome step brother shows real promise.
Not an enchanting evening, actually a deadly bore at times. But if you’re not used to Ibsen, this is a just about a passable impersonation, and the production is probably better then the play itself.