Staging an Ibsen play which the playwright disowned in later life as a reworking of a student acquaintance’s “rough mess of a draft” might seem like asking for trouble. Sponsored by the Norwegian Embassy, this early work sees Ibsen not entirely successfully trade his later naturalism for goblin whimsy and a preoccupation with the nature of national and local identity.
The play purports to be based on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the rather Renaissance device of a magical punch, which acts as a proto-pharmaceutical loosener, opening the younger characters’ hearts and minds to their true desires. Punch aside, though, magic is as peripheral to this play as its goblins, who spend their time interminably tuning up instruments in the attic without ever really being integrated into the action. Ibsen has swapped Shakespeare’s fairies for property deeds, with the legal wrangling so crucial in his later plays here providing a rather bizarre counterpoint to the Midsummer revels of the Norwegian villagers. Danny Lee Wynter (Poulson) does a wonderful job of making his jaundiced critic character both irritating and likeable, as he pompously misinterprets the distant symbolic drama by bonfire-light as a scene of urbane gentility, or his host’s garden as a rural wilderness. His ideological counterpoint Anne (Louise Calf), steeped in folklore and unable to escape her childhood memories, does a good line in wild-eyed naivety with some real heart behind it, bridging the distance between her well-heeled party guests and the native traditions they visit for one night, like tourists.
Having recently enjoyed the playwright Simon Stephen’s lively translation of A Doll’s House at the Young Vic, the translation used here (by Ibsen scholar James McFarlane) seems over-literal, and lacking in lyricism and dramatic movement. This has the result that the play often feels like heavy going in the way that Ibsen often is, but without the emotional or ideological pay-off. Big ideas about nation and culture are thrown about, but scarcely resolved, with the critic Poulson shooting theories into the air like clay pigeons, bound to fall down even without the derision of the other characters. Nationalism is in fact, though the word is frequently bandied about, something of a red herring in this play. What Ibsen is exploring is not the statesmanship and grand nation-building projects that the play’s language implies, but rather the lighter and softer nuances of native Norwegian culture and localism – a more attractive proposition, and one which should be more clearly signposted in the translation. The play’s strongest moments explore the magic invested in specific places and the memories that fill them, rather than national differences; the richly layered bonfire scene, which benefits from magical lighting by Richard Howell, emphasises the importance of shared memory and tradition, while its action is driven by the rituals and traditions of Midsummer night.
There is much to charm here; the complex, multi-layered set by James Perkins adds real character, although the tight spaces it creates do somewhat hobble the Midsummer dances, and the snatches of song that characters share, echoing and commenting on their own situations, add moments of real beauty. Still, though, the script is as airy and insubstantial as a half-remembered folksong. With none of Ibsen’s later emotional impact, this script is itching to be extended into a promenade garden show full of music and magic; in the close confines of a studio, it feels too cramped to satisfy.
St John’s Night is running at Jermyn Street Theatre until 4 August. For more information see their website.