From the Rose’s The Lady from the Sea to the Young Vic’s A Doll’s House and the Old Vic’s Hedda Gabler, 2012 can’t be said to have stinted London theatregoers on (excellent) Ibsen productions. But - last year’s Emperor and Galilean at the NT notwithstanding - it’s fallen to our smallest fringe venues to alight upon (some may say “dredge up”) the playwright’s earlier, lesser-known work. First off the block was the Jermyn Street Theatre with its revival of St. John’s Night and now the Orange Tree are producing Love’s Comedy. Ibsen’s 1862 verse drama and “first play of modern life” wasn’t performed in the UK until 1963, and is only now receiving its first professional London production. The willingness of these venues to think outside the box and stage such seldom-seen plays is admirable, of course. But while David Antrobus’s production has some charming and engaging moments it doesn’t entirely assuage the suspicion that there’s a reason why this particular work - deemed “immoral” upon its Norwegian premiere - may subsequently have been left to languish. As Raymond Williams suggests in Drama From Ibsen to Brecht: “It is a play of considerable incidental talent, but it shows more clearly than ever the false position into which Ibsen had been driven by his acceptance of contemporary theatrical techniques.”
The setting is the country-house of the widowed Mrs. Halm, where two students, Falk and Lind, are staying, wooing their host’s two daughters, Anna and Svanhild. Falk, a passionate, guitar-wielding aesthete who criticises bourgeois values in his poetry, initially finds his proposal to the quiet but free-thinking Svanhild rejected on the grounds that she doesn’t want to be his muse, and that writing is no substitute for action. But when a discussion of love ends with Falk denouncing his apparently happily-hitched hosts as hypocrites Svanhild is favourably impressed, and she and Falk plan to defy the family and run off together.
Had Ibsen concluded proceedings here the play would have been a rather pleasing miniature. But a draggy third act tests the patience and the decision that Swanhild and Falk finally come to - spurred by the intervention of a rich businessman, Guldstad - seems more perverse than poignant. The play is, as Williams suggests, an odd hybrid of elements, and Don Carleton’s translation proves erratic in its rendering of the language: sometimes spry and witty, often clunky and obtrusive.
Boasting a fairly fetching Munch-inspired design by Sam Dowson, Antrobus's production strives for a musical rhythm and achieves it in a few scattered moments. The highlight comes at the end of the first half, with the discourse on love undertaken as a kind of symphony by the cast that’s then interrupted by Falk’s great denunciation of the group. But the final developments have a depressive sting, and the heavy-handed combination of mockery and melancholy makes for an unsatisfying conclusion. Clearly, at the time of Love’s Comedy’s composition, Ibsen still had some way to go in order to become the master of irony which so much of his later work would prove him.
Last seen rocking five roles at the Orange Tree in the superb Yours for the Asking, Antrobus does a creditable job of work in his first outing as director and gets some entertaining performances from the ensemble. In his effort to capture Falk’s high-strung passion Mark Arends over-pitches his turn a tad, but he has some effective moments. Stuart Fox is amusing as the pontificating pastor who started out as a revolutionary but now has settled into the establishment and the (seemingly endless) production of offspring, and there’s sharp work on the sidelines from James Joyce, from Amy Neilson Smith and Mark Oosterveen, and from Jonathan Tafler as Guldstad. And the appealing Sarah Winter - so good as the betrayed fiancée in the Finborough’s recent Hindle Wakes - once again brings a particular glowing candour to the stage as Svanhild. But none of that can quite make up for the fact that this is a play in which the heroine has to declare to her lover - straight-faced - “What strength there is in you, my magic oak!”
How you feel about a line like that will very much determine how you'll feel about Love’s Comedy, overall. Its primary interest lies in seeing Ibsen initiating the critique of conventional thinking, women’s position and marriage that would become central to his best work. But the patchiness of the piece makes Antrobus’s production a mildly intriguing curio rather than the great discovery one may have hoped for.
Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes. The production is booking until 15th December. Further information at the Orange Tree website.