Reviews OWE & Fringe Published 19 November 2012

Love’s Comedy

Orange Tree Theatre ⋄ 14th November - 15th December 2012

The London premiere of an early Ibsen.

Neil Dowden

While Ibsen’s mature masterpieces are a mainstay of British theatre and have been for over a hundred years, it’s only very recently that some of his less well known earlier works have been staged in this country. Jermyn Street Theatre presented the UK premiere of St John’s Night back in the summer, the National staged a rare major production of Emperor and Galilean last year and now the Orange Tree presents the London premiere of Love’s Comedy, a work from 1862 which, while exploring recognisably Ibsenian themes, shows the writer in a much lighter vein.

The action centres around a boarding house in Christiania (Oslo) run by a widow whose two daughters fall in love with a couple of student lodgers. Whilst the courtship of the naive Anna and theology student Lind runs smoothly along conventional lines, the evolving relationship between free-spirited Swanhild and radical poet Falk (possibly a self-portrait of Ibsen as a young artist) is more complex and uncertain.

Although Ibsen was only 34 when he wrote Love’s Comedy, this was his tenth play in 12 years, and it shows a significant advance on his previous output even if it is some way short of his later classics. Written in verse, much of it rhyming couplets, it presents a big challenge for modern translators, but in this version Don Carleton has had the inspired idea of giving the more mundane folk prose to speak while saving the poetic dialogue for the ‘elevated’ characters. The play may be uneven, prone to schematic debate and caricatured characterisation (with emblematic names), but this is a genuine ‘discovery’, not a museum piece. Beginning as a sprightly romantic comedy, with satirical views on love and marriage, it turns into something much darker, as idealism and pragmatism, creativity and materialism are opposed in an outspoken critique of narrow-minded bourgeois values.

David Antrobus, who has performed at the Orange Tree many times as an actor, here takes the reins for the first time to give a lively and accessible account of this fascinating if flawed play. In this production, the earlier scenes have a youthful charm, while the ending is genuinely moving in its portrayal of blighted hopes. Sam Dowson’s design of wooden veranda and flower-strewn garden provides a suitably suburban setting, though the expressionist intensity of the Munch-like blue-sky mural seems out of place here.

Mark Arends gives a charismatically quicksilver performance as the provocative troubadour Falk, committed to living wholeheartedly in the moment regardless of social convention. Sarah Winter makes an affectingly ardent Swanhild, refusing to be just Falk’s muse, and foreshadowing later independent Ibsen heroines struggling against sexual inequality. The dreams of James Joyce’s boyish Lind of going to America are sacrificed for domestic comfort with Jessica Clark’s homely Anna.

Romance already seems to have faded from long-term fiancés played with comic pettiness by Amy Neilson Smith and Mark Oosterveen. Stuart Fox is the once promising artist turned pedantic pastor with 12 children, while Jonathan Tafler plays a worldly businessman who claims that women need security more than passion.

Director David Antrobus on staging Ibsen’s Love’s Comedy.

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Neil Dowden

Neil's day job is working as a freelance editor for book publishers such as HarperCollins, Penguin, Faber and British Film Institute Publishing, but as a night person he prefers reviewing for Exeunt. He has also written features on the theatre and reviewed films, concerts, albums, opera, dance, exhibitions, books and restaurants for various newspapers and magazines, including The Stage and What's On in London, as well as contributing to a couple of books on 20th-century drama and writing a short tourist guide to London for Visit Britain. He insists he is not a playwright manqué but was born to be a critic and just likes sticking a knife into luvvies. In fact, as a boy he wanted to become a professional footballer, but claims there were no talent scouts where he then lived on the South Wales coast, and so has had to settle for playing Sunday league for a dodgy south London team. Apart from the arts and sport, his other main interest is travel, and he is never happier than when up a mountain, though Everest Base Camp is the highest he has been so far. He believes he has not yet reached his peak.

Love’s Comedy Show Info


Directed by David Antrobus

Written by Henrik Ibsen

Link http://www.orangetreetheatre.co.uk/

Running Time 2 hours 40 minutes (including interval)

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