Once again (the second time this year!) an early work of Ibsen’s is making its extremely delayed debut in London. This time it’s Love’s Comedy (at the Orange Tree Theater), and I, with my Ibsen obsession, was drawn to it like a fly to a pitcher plant (and giddy about the prospect of falling in). I was also excited to see a new performance space: the black-box Orange Tree theater, which has been producing shows for ages but which sits outside of my normal circle despite being much easier to get home from than, say, the Arcola. And it was lovely inside, with the room decked out to represent the garden, patio, and external entrances to a Norwegian country home, complete with pear blossoms, adorable carved balcony railings, and a starry night sky in the distance. It all looked so inviting that I was ready to plop myself in one of the café chairs and pick up a basket of embroidery, but restrained myself and took a cushioned seat on the perimeter instead.
Written nearly a decade after St John’s Night, Love’s Comedy deals with some of the same themes; young lovers, town versus country, the changes in Norwegian values, who is right for whom. It even has a very similar main character, with the dreaming, iconoclastic poet Birk reimagined as the trouble-stirring (and yet still entirely just as egotistical) Falk (Mark Arends). But with ten year’s time, Ibsen seems to have lost his patience with Falk, who seems, in his vision for his lover Swanhild (Sarah Winter), to be eager to put her in a box that limits her own existence as an individual despite claiming to love freedom himself. He is every bit limited by his own provincial notions of women’s capabilities, and I wanted to whisper to her to run away from him before she wrecked her life.
Interestingly, Falk, as he tried to seduce Swanhild into taking up a life that would most flatter his self-importance, seemed to me an incarnation of a character from Ibsen’s final play: the sculptor from When We Dead Awaken. I wondered if Falk recognized that ultimately he would break Swanhild and leave her to seek her revenge from him decades later …
or if, as a comedy, there might be a more conventional and Victorian appropriate ending, which, in fact, there was. I dearly enjoyed seeing what seemed to be nearly familiar people on stage reliving parts of their lives I’d had questions about, but I’m afraid it did all get a bit tedious. The in-plot poetry was bad; the spoken verse was kind of clunky when it made it into the dialogue; and there was just a bit too much philosophizing about the different stages of love to really keep my interest. Mind you, it was almost all worth it to hear someone say, “Goodnight sweet chintz” to a set of ruined curtains; but not enough – unless you are an Ibsen completist. And for me, the excellent acting softened the failings of the script; and my own raging imagination took over (asking questions about where people were going with their lives) when was was being said failed to keep my attention. It was a good production of a very weak play, and I’m glad I got to see it done well.
(This review is for a play that took place on Friday, November 16th, 2012. It continues through December 15th.)