Just before the lights go down for the National Theater’s staging of “The Enchantment,” a member of stage-management removes a sign propped up against part of the set only inches from the feet of some audience members: “Warning: This stove is hot.” Such naturalistic detailing — the stove works and a kettle is boiled upon it — is indicative of Paul Miller’s production. Yet despite the thoughtful attention paid to individual moments, Miller doesn’t quite manage to put enough heat under the belated British premiere of Victoria Benedictsson’s love-among-the-artists, proto-“Hedda Gabler” drama.
The “Hedda Gabler” reference is not accidental. The arc of this Swedish play climaxing in the heroine’s suicide was mirrored a year later by the now-famous Ibsen play. Rescued from neglect by playwright Clare Bayley, Benedictsson’s drama — written under a male pseudonym — is something of a feminist and theatrical missing link.
Benedictsson committed suicide shortly after completing the play and the action cleaves to her relationship with the famous Danish critic Georg Brandes. In the play, however, central character Louise (Nancy Carroll) is seduced by Gustave (Zubin Varla), a powerfully engaging sculptor.
“Could you please tell me what’s so very special about that city?” asks Louise’s exasperated housekeeper Botilda (bustling and bristling Marlene Sidaway). She’s referring to Paris, where Louise has escaped a loveless marriage to a kind but bloodless bank manager (a touchingly tender Patrick Drury).
Paris offers the excitement of artists, and, with them, a degree of female emancipation as exemplified by Erna Wallden (brightly defiant Niamh Cusack), a tough-minded, unmarried painter who, it becomes clear openly has sexual relationships.
She has also survived a damaging relationship with Gustave, who cast her aside due to his dispassionate belief that “love is no more than an episode in life.” Marriage, he believes, “is the ruination of us all.” When her ex and Louise meet and his magnetism reels her in — hence the play’s title — Erna warns her heedless friend.
As Gustave, Varla has the toughest job of the night. His character is wreathed in what can look like mere self-satisfaction. However, Varla cleverly counters Gustave’s almost purring sense of his own power over Louise with blinkered zeal. His utterly convinced sense of himself is revealed to be more than standard-issue male fear of commitment.
He’s helped by David Shrubsole’s score. Almost immediately upon meeting Louise, he says “Look at me,” at which point cello, flute and harp music steals in. This not only sets up his seduction — which occurs much later, offstage — but also orchestrates his almost other-worldly power. When Erna, driven frantic with worry over Louise’s capitulation, cries, “He mesmerizes you so you see it all through his eyes,” it makes complete sense.
Elsewhere, however, energy is too often dissipated. This is partly due to the decision to stage the play on a sparsely furnished, rather unatmospheric, lengthy thrust stage with the audience on three sides. It adds intimacy but allows energy to seep away in the largely predictable first half.
The greater threat to the build-up of dramatic tension is Miller allowing his cast to act off rather than on the lines. Bayley’s translation has more urgency than the actors sometimes give, causing tension to sag in pauses before and after lines that illustrate what they’re thinking.
Alongside Cusack, the outstanding exception to this is Carroll’s spirited Louise. The actress seizes her cues and keeps her character active rather than reflective. She vividly conveys the dilemma in which her initially tentative but increasingly headstrong character finds herself.
The play’s most intriguing aspect is Louise’s modern self-knowledge. She holds off from a full-blown affair because she understands she will be abandoned. Her capitulation is fascinatingly conscious. Carroll may actually be almost too powerful in the early stages of the play — she’s a touch vigorous for someone recovering from typhoid. By the end, however, the vivid colors of her performance embody not just Louise but the play’s still resonant ideas on the gender agenda.