Nottingham Playhouse take a bold step at the launch of the city’s European Arts Festival in featuring the UK’s first performance of Ibsen’s The League of Youth. At first glance the subject matter – Norwegian local government elections towards the end of the 19th century - may not seem to be the stuff great drama is made of but Andy Barrett’s new version brings fresh meaning to what I suspect is an impenetrable original.
The play revolves around the short-lived career of political opportunist Stensgard who sets out to challenge the rule of the grey haired patriarchs who currently represent the community. As a launch pad to a seat in parliament and real influence he not only has to carry the election but marry well to acquire the property qualifications he needs for success.
At first his popular attack on the wealth and privilege displayed by the current holders of power seems credible but he displays his own self-serving interests as his campaign progresses, courting the powerful local Chamberlain but earning his wrath for the transparency of his ambition.
Ultimately successful in winning the support of the voters it is that other major flaw apparent in certain politicians that leads to his downfall, courting three local women simultaneously, losing them all and calamitously losing face.
Followers of modern British politics will find much to entertain them in the parallels drawn between Stensgard’s Scandinavian society and the shallow self-interest displayed by some of our own representatives today and Andy Barrett’s reworking from a new literal translation constantly scores dialogue that reverberatse with a contemporary audience. The lines “he is not weighed down with social responsibilities. Or indeed convictions. Which makes it very easy for him to be a liberal” got the biggest laughs of the night.
Sam Callis creates a mesmerising and totally credible Stensgard who balances popular appeal, constantly changing conviction and menace with aplomb while Philip Bretheron as Chamberlain Bratsberg and David Acton’s Lunestad provide strong support from among a capable cast. Billed as a comedy there certainly are laughs to be had and many of the best were supplied by Russell Bentley as the bumbling Dr Fjeldbo who got the last laugh by winning his girl in the nick of time.
Director Giles Croft uses some neat tricks to involve the audience, sprinkling a large cast of “extras” among the stalls to act as the contemporary electorate before taking to the stage to populate the later scenes. Their contemporary dress in the opening section added a little confusion to an apparently haphazard costuming of many of the cast which saw garments appearing to date from the Regency through to the 1920s. Most tellingly Stengard’s suit got progressively modern in its cut until, by the final scene complete with bright yellow tie and only missing an appropriate rosette, he became the perfect vision of a contemporary politician displaying his true colours.