Review: The Enchantment, National Theatre

Does context make a difference? Not knowing anything about Victoria Benedictsson, the Swedish writer of The Enchantment, would leave you thinking that this is just another tale of Nordic emotional angst, the doom and gloom we know from the likes of Strindberg and Ibsen. But there’s much more to it than that: Benedictsson herself had a scandalous affair with a critic which ended badly in him rejecting her both sexually and artistically and she consequently committed suicide just months after completing this play in 1888. Her story then formed the inspiration for both aforementioned writers: the seeds of both Miss Julie and Hedda Gabler could be said to arise from here.

The Enchantment is probably best described as semi-autobigraphical, clearly heavily informed by her own experiences but not a strict representation thereof. Caddish sculptor Gustave Alland captures the heart and mind of Louise Strandberg whilst she is recuperating in her brother’s Parisian art studio. She tries to forget him by fleeing back to her native Sweden and a life of domestic drudgery, but temptation is strong and she returns to surrender to an utterly unsuitable affair that cannot end happily.

This is without doubt Nancy Carroll’s show. As Louise, she is rarely offstage and though posited as ‘just a normal woman’ without any true vocation or artistic talent despite the company she keeps, her luminous beauty and heart-catching fragility of emotion makes her attractiveness completely believable. Zubin Varla’s cool froideur as the charismatic though emotionally crippled Gustave makes a great match for her and their scenes together, though at times extremely wordy, crackle with electricity.

But there’s a great cast around this pair too that brings to life the world around them: Louise’s friend Erna, herself a former lover of Gustave, is able to find her own release through her own art, growing into a strong woman as impressively depicted by Niamh Cusack; Hugh Skinner’s as the brother, Judith Coke’s imperious Mrs Knutson, Patrick Drury’s forlorn fiancé, all convince with emotionally true performances.

Paul Miller’s direction puts this period piece into the round in the Cottesloe, a great decision which releases it from fusty recreations of gilt-edged furniture and heavy velvet furnishings and focuses in on the intimacy of these painfully real human interactions. Atmospheric lighting from Bruno Poet and gorgeous live music led by David Shrubsole create the perfect environment for this tragic tale which I found to me most affecting.

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