Reviews OWE & Fringe Published 13 July 2012

St John’s Night

Jermyn Street Theatre ⋄ 12th July – 4th August 2012

A rare early Ibsen.

Simon Thomas

Henrik Ibsen’s path to glory was a long and far from easy one. Before the plays he’s now remembered for, he wrote 10 earlier works, all of which would be long forgotten if he hadn’t lived beyond the age of 35. St John’s Night was the third (the fourth if you include a re-working of Bellini’s opera Norma) and it was a huge step forward from the verse sketches he’d produced so far.

He lurched on in fits and starts and, following this initial foray into prose and contemporary drama, churned out four pretty dreadful historical pieces before writing his first masterpiece Love’s Comedy in 1862. Even then, he returned to Norwegian history for the slightly creaky, if fascinating, epic The Pretenders before then embarking on a career of unstoppable genius.

St John’s Night has more in common with Love’s Comedy than any of the other early plays, evident in James McFarlane’s nifty and elegant translation, which Jermyn Street Theatre is using for this UK premiere production. There’s an agility to the structuring and language that we don’t see in the arthritic Nordic histories that surround it. The midnight stomp through the hills strangely foreshadows the mountaintops of Brand, and even those of John Gabriel Borkman and When We Dead Awaken, but with none of the tragic consequences.

The story involves two sets of lovers who, under the spell of a Goblin potion, venture into the woods and find their true partners. If that sounds familiar, it’s because Ibsen saw a couple of productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream on his European tour just before settling down in Germany to write the play. By the end, it all borders on the twee, and the more challenging aspects of the staging are somewhat avoided here, but Anthony Biggs’s production is a total delight.

There’s a terrific quartet of lovers in Isla Carter and Louise Calf and Danny Lee Wynter and Ed Birch, with plenty of deft comic playing from each. Wynter in particular is very funny as the vain and pretentious Julian Poulsen (“rarely cheerful for more than half an hour at a time”), whose soul is a field on which aestheticism and nationalism battle it out, just as his blonde wig sits at odds with the rest of the world. National pride, borne out of a Norway colonised by its Scandinavian neighbours, is a theme that runs through the play, although to our eyes and ears, this aspect just seems quaintly amusing. David Osmond’s authentically Nordic-looking Jorgen lurks on the perimeter of the lovers’ orbit, with some nicely frantic manoeuvrings, while never quite grasping what’s going on.

Sara Crowe rings the most out of the bossy, grasping mother and Roddy Maude-Roxby is dottily entertaining as the grandfather Berg, while in the attic not one but two masked goblins (Harry Napier and Luke Bateman, also the MD) inhabit a Disneyland grotto and provide a lively and endearing musical accompaniment on a range of instruments.

This resurrection of a seemingly lost work will undoubtedly intrigue anyone who wants to see “another Ibsen,” one that’s funny, lighthearted and brimming with incipient if distant greatness, but one that also appeals as a quirky, engaging production in its own right, even for those with no interest in the early development of a major world dramatist.


Simon Thomas

Simon writes theatre and opera features/reviews for Exeunt and Whatsonstage. He took a degree in Theatre Arts at the Rose Bruford College and has worked in the theatre, in various capacities since the 1980s. He has a keen interest in new writing, the early (and late) works of Henrik Ibsen, and the works of Carlo Goldoni, amongst other things. His book The Theatre of Carlo Goldoni is available on Amazon.

St John’s Night Show Info

Directed by Anthony Biggs

Cast includes Sara Crowe, Louise Calf , Isla Carter, Roddy Maude-Roxby, David Osmond, Danny Lee Wynter, Ed Birch, Harry Napier, Luke Bateman



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