Review: St John’s Night, Jermyn Street

“Don’t forget about the goblin in the attic”

Written early in his career in 1852, Ibsen’s play St John’s Eve (or St John’s Night as it has been retitled here in this translation by James McFarlane) was so poorly received that it was brushed under the carpet somewhat and not even included in his collected works. Following on from last year’s successful version of another neglected Ibsen piece Little Eyolf, director Anthony Biggs returns to the Jermyn Street Theatre to see if lightning can strike twice by giving St John’s Night its UK premiere. This may have been a preview but for me, I’m not so sure that it did succeed, instead reminding us why some plays are left to collect dust.

This is very much an example of the playwright-in-progress , being unlike any other Ibsen play that I know, as it is a fairy-tale comedy, taking influence from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream but putting a decidedly Nordic spin on it. The play is set on a Norwegian farm whose ownership is unclear after the death of Mr Berg. Berg’s second wife lives in one house and is trying to secure the inheritance for her daughter by finding a good marriage and she invites her chosen victim Birk, with two of his friends, to join in their midsummer revels. Berg’s ageing father and naïve daughter live in another, older house on the estate which happens to have a resident goblin upstairs and when the young people decide to take their party up to a mystical hill, the goblin – a Puck-like figure – spikes their drink with a potion that unlocks all sorts of hidden memories.

James Perkins’ design impressively reinvents the limited space of the Jermyn Street to neatly suggest these two varying properties and the pastoral charm of a summery Norwegian hillside, even providing a nook for the household goblin – Luke Bateman – to play his own composed music which twinkles and undulates most atmospherically throughout the show, the waterphone used to prefigure the goblin’s actions is particularly well chosen. But there’s an uncertainty of tone in the rest of the production that limits its effectiveness. Some performers appear to be in something of a farce, whilst others are much more serious in tone and the disparate elements have yet to marry in a way that convinced.

The mystical fairy-tale ambience, hinted at from the beginning with a nightmare-inducing (for me at least) puppet-like creature, is rarely allowed to flow as Ibsen’s writing is mainly concerned with matters of romantic Norwegian nationalism and how it should properly be conceived and this tension is something that recurs as Biggs’ production skitters from mood to mood. Louise Calf’s earnestness as the goodly Anne is appealing, especially as she connects more and more Ed Birch’s Birk whilst his intended Julianne, Isla Carter whose exasperated charisma I rather liked, grows closer to Danny Lee Wynter’s aesthete Poulsen, a difficult role. David Osmond has a great foppishness as Jørgen, a character whose presence in the play is sadly, largely quite superfluous and Sara Crowe is rather wasted as Mrs Berg, again hampered by the lack of clarity about character.

Given that the Young Vic’s A Doll’s House is reinvigorating Ibsen’s classic work so vibrantly even as we speak, the choice to delve so far into his back catalogue is perhaps ill-timed. A stronger through-line in the tone of the production would do justice to the excellent creative work that has been done here, but this is still an example of a playwright starting to find his voice rather than a powerful early expression thereof.

Running time: 2 hours (with interval)
Booking until 4th August

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