Two productions of Ghosts in London in the last few weeks are evidence of the continuing popularity of Ibsen’s best known works, while many of the 26 plays that make up his complete dramatic oeuvre continue to remain unproduced.
There’s a good reason in some cases; Ghosts, A Doll’s House and Hedda Gabler are masterpieces, while the eight plays written before 1862 have nothing like the same level of inspiration and dramatic acuity. It was only with Love’s Comedy and The Pretenders, the ninth and tenth plays, that he was to find himself on solid ground theatrically.
There’s less excuse for later plays such as Little Eyolf and When We Dead Awaken to be so ignored, although both of those works have been seen in London in recent years, and it’s refreshing that, despite decades of neglect, we are now starting to see some of the immature works revived. For all their weaknesses, they throw a fascinating light on Ibsen’s slow and often painful development.
Following productions of St John’s Night – at Jermyn Street – and Love’s Comedy – at the Orange Tree – in London in the last year (as well as the monolithic, middle period Emperor and Galilean), a new staging of his fourth play Lady Inger of Ostraat, written in 1854 when he was 26, is being mounted at the Baron’s Court Theatre at the end of October: it’s a welcome opportunity to see if, given a good dusting off, this is a play worthy of modern presentation.
It was his first fully prose play and, coming after the domestic, if slightly fantastical, setting of St John’s Night, it’s a historical drama based on 16th Century Norwegian politics, a time when the country was under the yoke of its belligerent neighbour Denmark. Fru Inger Ottisdatter Gyldenlöve was a real person, a powerful influence in the struggle for independence. Ibsen the poet romanticised her story, using it as his first exploration of public versus personal ambition and sexual politics.
In its original form, Lady Inger liberally uses confusion and mistaken identity to create dramatic tension, the sort of technique Ibsen was to employ throughout his career, but with much greater subtlety in the plays of his maturity. It has the most convoluted plot of his early works, operatic in its complexity, and anyone producing the play now has a real challenge making the various alliances and identities clear to an audience.
Eugene Scribe, the founder of the so-called well-made play, has long been considered a lasting influence on Ibsen but the playwright’s biographer Michael Meyer maintains that, for this play, Shakespeare is a more significant model. Certainly, the political machinations are every bit as complicated as those in the Henry VI trilogy but are more difficult to follow. Several times during the first couple of acts (of five) an unnamed visitor is expected to arrive and the identity of the anticipated guest misunderstood. The exposition is clunky and there are long monologues, asides and melodramatic curtain lines. Ibsen was to handle similarly difficult material much better in The Pretenders some nine years later.
With current interest in dramas like Game of Thrones, Mark Ewbank, the director and adaptor for the new production, believes the time is ripe for a reappraisal of Lady Inger. He clearly has a passion for and belief in the play but if Jump Cut’s production this month is to convince, something fairly miraculous has to take place with the adaptation and staging in order to overcome the dramaturgical problems.
The play does contain some potent imagery, from a writer who up to that point was more experienced as a poet than a playwright. Inger’s feisty daughter Elina likens her mother to the one in the tale who, pursued by wolves, throws her children one by one from the sledge in order to save herself. Elina is referring to her sisters, who have been passed off to Danish lords and one of whom lies in the family vault as a consequence, but it is to have further resonances later when Inger’s plotting unwittingly brings about the death of her own son.
Lady Inger was last produced in the UK as long ago as 1947, when it appeared at the Gateway Theatre Club with Molly Veness as Lady Inger and Tom Cornish as Nils Lykke. It has been produced as recently as 2010 in Norway. Ibsen’s next three plays – The Feast at Solhaug, Olaf Liljekrans and The Vikings at Helgeland – were to explore similar historical (and mythological) subjects before a return to contemporary domestic settings with Love’s Comedy steered him in the direction of social drama and helped establish him as one of the world’s great playwrights. If Ewbank and his young cast succeed with their production of Lady Inger, the results could be revelatory.
Jump Cut’s production of Lady Inger is at Baron’s Court Theatre from 22nd-26th October 2013.