Many an opera director, when faced with the task of staging the opening of the third act of Richard Wagner’s Die Walküre, fails to rise satisfactorily to the challenge. The director of Ibsen’s The Vikings at Helgeland, unstaged for 80 years, has the same problem, as the play ends with the same mythical incident.
Antonio Ferrara, in his resurrection of the play at the Drayton Arms, opts for the most minimal of approaches, with the spectacle of a thunderous procession of dead heroes and horses reduced to something akin to an offstage sunset. But then Ibsen’s Vikings play can afford to dispense with the Ride of the Valkyries rather more than Wagner’s master-work can.
Epic theatre in a room above a pub may sound perverse but it’s the only way you’re likely to see Ibsen’s early dramas nowadays and concessions have to be made. The Norwegian playwright wrote 10 plays before Brand and Peer Gynt set him on the path to greatness and it’s left to enterprising companies on the fringe to explore these youthful theatrical flounderings, which by and large is what they are.
In the last couple of years, there have been London productions of Lady Inger of Ostraat, St John’s Night and Love’s Comedy – performed at the Orange Tree in 2012 – with The Feast at Solhaug slated for a Barons Court outing next spring. In the meantime, Ibsen’s seventh play, written in 1858 and based on the same Norse legends that Wagner used for his Ring cycle, gets a highly credible staging in Kensington by storytelling specialists, Firstborn.
Ferrara has a great eye for stage pictures and visually this is as good a production as you could expect on the fringe. He doesn’t mine the sub-text as fully as he could but his cast is very good at acting the unactable and there’s some real dramatic tension in a number of scenes. In particular, the third act revelations between the heroic Sigurd and his fearsome protagonist Hjørdis crackle with excitement, thanks to some intensely felt acting by Harry Anton and Roseanne Lynch. Throughout the evening, Lynch is a powerhouse as the Amazonian warrior, a clear precursor to Ibsen’s Hedda.
The cast use Scottish and Irish accents (sometimes an uncomfortable mix of the two), and this seems an apt equivalent for English ears. Ferrara’s fluent updating of the text trims some of the creakier exposition and loses something of the mythic quality in the process but adds a domestic dimension, which creates greater pre-echoes of the later plays.
The production doesn’t overcome all the difficulties of a play that I’d always considered unstageable up to now and a few giggles have to be suppressed because of the clunkiness of Ibsen’s undeveloped talent but the negatives are far outweighed by the theatrical flair on show.
Certainly this is a must-see for the Ibsen completist but I’d guess also a worthwhile evening for anyone wanting to a peek at the early stirrings of a unique dramatic genius.
Simon Thomas on Ibsen’s The Vikings at Helgeland