Ibsen wrote a lot of interesting plays before he became Ibsen, and St John’s Night – not seen in London since its premiere in 1921 in a small theatre in Chelsea – is one of them; a spoof on nationalist drama inside another spoof on A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Hats off, then, to Jermyn Street and director Anthony Biggs for cramming a Nordic landscape into this tiny space and still leaving room for goblins, a mountain fire, a marching song (with accordion, triangle and hand bells) and magical moonlight memories.
At the root is a question of inheritance, essential to Ibsen, and a discussion about communion with nature that climaxed in Peer Gynt before settling down in the background to the realist masterpieces.
So it’s fascinating to discover that this play’s central character, a spurious poet and Old Norse specialist, is a figure of fun, although Danny Lee Wynter’s too-quiet and finical performance as Julien Poulsen only goes half-way towards the ridiculous sublime in the role.
Whereas the lovers in Shakespeare’s Dream are mis-aligned by Puck’s magic potion, the drafts of midsummer punch in the St John’s wood sort out the couples appropriately, though Poulsen can still trace his enchantment with Isla Carter’s hearty Juliane to a dancefloor mishap. The poetic union is between Ed Birch’s well-modulated Andy Murray lookalike Birk (not a berk after all) and Louise Calf’s fresh-faced Anne, the household drudge who does go to the ball. Comic relief is provided by Sara Crowe’s maternal snob and Roddy Maude-Roxby’s fuddle-brained old-timer, holed up in his tumbledown shack.
James Perkins’s design places this shack right alongside the bright pink family chalet that symbolises the grasping materialism and shallowness of modern life in the fjords.
It’s a visual statement, too, of the struggle to which Poulsen comically confesses between aestheticism and nationalism. And a pair of goblin musicians in face masks hovers above, tweaking the comedy of human endeavour with ethereal sound and the odd brass raspberry.
Ibsen never allowed the play to be printed in his lifetime, but as Michael Meyer always insisted, and we now see, thanks to James McFarlane’s highly speakable translation, St John’s Night is a curiously engaging work, and one that shows a great dramatist having fun while sorting out his priorities in the open air before closing the door, drawing the curtains and getting down to business.