Next month, Richmond’s Orange Tree Theatre will present the professional London premiere of Ibsen’s little-known Love’s Comedy, with David Antrobus, a regular actor at the venue undertaking his debut production as a director.
Antrobus first encountered the play earlier this year, alerted to it by an actor friend who was involved in a staged reading at Kingston’s Rose Theatre. Mentioning it to Sam Walters, the Orange Tree’s long-time artistic director, he discovered that the script had been sitting on the theatre’s shelves for a few years waiting for the right time to be put it into the schedule. The venue’s policy of exploring unknown works by great writers, and Antrobus’s growing enthusiasm, precipitated its production.
Love’s Comedy was the first play set in Ibsen’s own time and country since St John’s Night written some 10 years earlier. In the intervening years he’d produced four historical dramas of dubious quality but, with what was to become his first enduring masterpiece, he made a bold return to domestic themes within a contemporary setting.
The plot revolves around two young men staying with the widow Mrs Halm, each in love with one of the daughters of the house. For Lind, a young theology student, love’s course runs smoothly, with Anna happily accepting his marriage proposal. But Falk, a poet, has a harder time of it, largely due to his own idealism and rejection of the conventional attitudes that represent a stifling of his natural impulses. The other daughter Svanhild, however, is a soul-mate for Falk, a spirited young woman excited and inspired by his dreams of free love and spiritual adventure.
Antrobus decided on a version of the play by Don Carleton, a protégé of Ibsen translator John Northam. The play’s discussion examines love from every angle, but the form of the writing is also crucial. Rendering it into English is problematic, with the original text written in verse, often in rhyming couplets. Ibsen biographer Michael Meyer claimed this was a major inhibitor to production.
“Don Carleton took a bold look at the text and focused primarily on the ideas in the play,” says Antrobus. “This translation is a mixture of prose and free verse, with Falk and Svanhild – the play’s free spirits – tending towards verse, while the more grounded characters speak in prose. Ibsen was at a point in his writing where, even though Peer Gynt and Brand (which came later) were in verse, he wanted to stop writing poetry so it’s an appropriate approach.”
Antrobus sees the play as pivotal to Ibsen’s development: “It really grapples with the big themes that he was to develop later in his career. He was breaking through a barrier and the play glimpses the vista of the rest of his creative life.”
Few people would immediately associate Ibsen with either love or laughter, so to what extent is Love’s Comedy either a love story or a comedy? Antrobus says, “It’s a classical understanding of comedy where the clash of ideas generates some laughs. It’s very witty but it does turn a lot darker and more serious in the last act.”