Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Some Enchanting Evening?

I do love the South Bank on a sunny evening: the glittering river, the hum of human life, the glass of wine sipped whilst watching odd performance art types juggle bunches of flowers outside the National.

It was almost a shame to leave it behind for what promised to be two hours plus of Scandinavian gloom at the Cottesloe, but I had tickets for The Enchantment, so leave it behind I did. The play is by Victoria Benedictsson, who, though rather lost to history was an influential figure in her day, inspiring both Strindberg and Ibsen. Her 1888 play The Enchantment has never been performed before in the UK but its premier production has been directed by Paul Miller, (the man who brought the magnificent Elling to the stage) so my anticipation levels were high.

Nancy Carroll plays Louise Strandberg, a young Swedish woman living in Paris, existing in a world of artists, though she has no artistic talent or inclination herself – Paris for her is about escape and liberation from her tedious provincial background. Here, she embarks on an affair with Gustave Alland played by Zubin Varla. He is supposed to be a magnetic, attractive character – a man capable of exerting an effortless hold over the women he encounters. But the odd rhythms of speech Varla employs, and the strange emphasis he puts on unexpected words, speak less of boundless charisma and more of a man struggling to remember his lines.

In the second half, the action reverts to Sweden and we see the life Louise is escaping: marriage to a kind but staid and middle-aged bank manager and a living room swathed in symbolic dust sheets. The denouement is predictably, Swedish-ly bleak.

Though the play is slow in places and comparatively heavy-handed in others, Benedictsson’s writing contains some flashes of insight into the muddle of love and the impossible position of women in 19th century society. She knows she stands zero chance of changing Alland, yet she remains besotted with him, in total awe, able to excuse away his every abuse of her love. Nancy Carroll has a glowing presence as Louise and Niamh Cusack is equally good, if sometimes a little shrill, as her close friend (and former conquest of Alland’s). But good as they are they’re not quite capable of enlivening this rather stiff and tiresome production.

The Cottesloe’s in-the-round staging meant that I was seated with my back to the curious wall projection thingy, thus missing out on the most inventive aspect of the set. However my position did mean that, when a character dropped a rather crucial letter on the floor, it landed pretty much at my feet, allowing me to inspect whether it actually said what it was supposed to say. Unfortunately before I could decipher the scrawly handwriting, it was picked up again – however, and I’m just guessing, it may have said: “Off to run head under tap in preparation for melodramatic final scene.”

Oh, and the women’s costumes were rather beautiful, it has to be said. I really, really want a bodice and bustle now – I think it would look rather fine in the office.

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