Marriage looms, but two pairs of mismatched lovers run away to a wood where, courtesy of a sprite-administered magic potion, they discover their true selves. Yes, it’s the plot of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” only this time with folklore, a secret inheritance and Norway’s nationalist idealism. And goblins. The only play Ibsen excluded from his collected works was this, his third, “St. John’s Night.” On the evidence of Anthony Biggs’ rare but ramshackle production, that was a smart move.
“St. John’s Night” uses Shakespeare’s lovers’ plot, but instead of writing about love, 24-year-old Ibsen had grander ambition. With Norway then under Swedish political rule with its individual identity under threat, the work was intended as a call to cultural arms, but one written largely as a comedy — not exactly a mode for which Ibsen would become famous.
To achieve his aim, he set up characters in differing relations to Norwegian culture. But he sabotaged his efforts with clunky exposition and one-note characters. There’s stepmother Mrs. Berg (Sara Crowe = wicked) and grandfather Berg (Roddy Maude-Roxby = doddery) guarding crucial papers which you instantly know are going to be discovered just in time for the denouement.
The lovers, meanwhile, strut, fret and present themselves to each other, (over)sharing their backstories and making impetuous declarations. They’re aided, unwittingly, by goblins who oversee the action, play musical instruments and act very slowly indeed.
With protestations of love awkwardly juxtaposed with thinly written melodrama and examinations of folk songs, it’s immediately clear that tonally, the evening is all over the place. Alas, that’s not confined to the script.
Biggs’ tension-free production never comes to terms with its tiny space. James Perkins’ cumbersome set sits awkwardly on the tiny stage, and although the costumes have a folksy charm, they are better suited to a far larger venue.
The same goes for the performances. Biggs appears to have directed the lines but neither the relationships nor the scenes as a whole. The result is as many styles as there are cast members and an “every (wo)man for himself” desperation about the acting.
Ibsen was writing a satire, hence the overstated character of the poet Poulsen, who speaks glowingly of Norwegian culture while actually failing to understand it. But Danny Lee Wynter’s self-conscious performance is so out of synch with the others that it’s impossible to take him seriously.
The evening’s saving grace is Louise Calf, who brings a rare lightness of touch to Anne. She strips all twee self-pity from the role and makes naivete both convincing and engaging.
Staging an almost entirely forgotten Ibsen drama is entirely laudable in principle. But the only case this production makes is that the play is justly neglected. Only theater historians need apply.