The Enchantment @ National Theatre, London

cast list
Nancy Carroll
Judith Coke
Niamh Cusack
Edward Davenport
Patrick Drury
Avril Elgar
Madeleine Herrington
Ray Newe
Claudia Renton
Marlene Sidaway
Hugh Skinner
Zubin Varla

directed by
Paul Miller
Though, in her day, she was an inspirational figure to both Ibsen and Strindberg, Victoria Benedictsson is not a name many will be familiar with outside her native Sweden.

Her 1888 play The Enchantment, written shortly before she killed herself, has never been produced in the UK; and though Paul Miller’s new staging is often stiff and uncertain, it has its moments of grace and power.

The play concerns Louise Strandberg, an ailing young Swedish woman living in Paris. She exists in a heady world of ex-pat artists, though she readily admits to having no artistic talent or inclination herself Paris for her is purely a place to escape her tedious provincial background.

Louise embarks on an affair with artist Gustave Alland. He is a charismatic, but also callous man, well aware of the sexual hold he exerts over women and happy to exploit it. Louise is besotted, desperate to see goodness in the man, despite the advice of her friends, and despite the fact he is given to announcing that he “doesn’t believe in women.” Indeed, even when Alland happily informs her that he does not believe that their love, that any love, can last for long, she remains intoxicated with the man.

In the second half, Louise has left Paris for Sweden and we get a glimpse of the life she is striving to escape. Returning home for her means marriage to a kind but staid and middle-aged bank manager and a living room swathed in symbolic dust sheets. It is little surprise that when Alland summons her she returns to Paris, leading to the play’s predictably, bleak conclusion.

Nancy Carroll is superb as Louise, she has an almost glowing presence on stage and she sparks nicely off Niamh Cusack, who plays her close friend, an artist who Alland has also been involved with. However, I was less convinced by Zubin Varla’s take on the role of the supposedly magnetic Alland. His rather mannered style of delivery was irritating rather than captivating, and while his performance was suitably intense, it gives the audience little sense of this power to bewitch women he is supposed to have.

The play is a tad slow in places and comparatively heavy-handed in others, but Benedictsson’s writing contains some flashes of insight into the knotty muddle of love and obsession, not to mention the impossible position of women in 19th century society: their whole lives geared towards marriagem, with room for little else. Louise knows in heart that she can’t change Alland, yet she remains determined to believe in him. She is completely under his spell and excuses away his every abuse of her love, because he is a “genius.”

This is at times a stiff and tiresome production, staged rather solemnly in-the-round at the Cottesloe, but it spoke to me on a number of levels; it had truth at its core and this sung out despite its shortcomings.

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