Victoria Benedictsson’s rarely seen 19th-century Swedish play The Enchantment, in a new version by Clare Bayley, received its British premiere last night (1 August 2007, previews from 24 July) at the National Theatre, where it runs in rep at the NT Cottesloe until 1 November (See News, 19 Jun 2007).

One sunny day in Paris, Gustave Alland, famous artist and philanderer, visits Louise Strandberg – convalescing in her brother's studio – and casts her effortlessly under his spell. In a vain attempt to escape, she exiles herself to her provincial hometown in Sweden. But a letter propels her back to Paris and into his arms. And for a brief moment, before the horror, ecstasy is hers.

Author Victoria Benedictsson, the inspiration for Strindberg’s Miss Julie, had a scandalous affair which led to her suicide after completing the play in 1888. At the National, the semi-autobiographical Enchantment is led by Nancy Carroll as Louise and Zubin Varla as Gustave, with Niamh Cusack as Erna. The production is directed by Paul Miller and designed by Simon Daw.

Several first night critics fell under the spell of The Enchantment and were particularly beguiled by the “hauntingly beautiful” Nancy Carroll as the doomed Louise Strandberg. They were excited by the prospect of the discovery of a previously “unknown” play, particularly one with such clear autobiographical nods, and intrigued by its commentary on the differing male/female perspectives on the nature of relationships. However, others, while impressed by all of that and the cast’s “detailed” performances, felt that in the end the story lacked the “essential dynamic” to make it truly moving drama.

  • Michael Coveney on (four stars) – “The writer Clare Bayley discovered the play – which was published posthumously and given six performances in Stockholm in 1910 – while researching Scandinavian novels, and her absorbing version has been given a rivetingly well acted production by Paul Miller … The traverse staging proves itself yet again the best way of doing things in the Cottesloe. We feel we are eavesdropping both in the Paris studio and the rain-drenched Swedish retreat where Louise vainly tries to stem the rising flood of despair … Louise has lost both parents, recovered from typhoid and witnessed her sister’s breakdown. She is not a happy bunny, but Nancy Carroll imbues her with an irresistible humanity and beautiful languor. Carroll is a brilliant comedienne but she is also the most rapturously and elegantly sensual of all contemporary actresses, and this performance is as remarkable as any in her illustrious career to date.”

  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (four stars) – “Played in the round, Paul Miller's poised production makes us eavesdroppers on the heroine's destruction. The hauntingly beautiful Nancy Carroll captures every aspect of Louise from her quivering passion to her momentary cruelty. Zubin Varla rescues Gustave from monstrosity by suggesting that, inhabiting a world of promiscuous liaisons, he is out of his depth when confronted by genuine love. Niamh Cusack as his vengeful ex-partner, Hugh Skinner as the heroine's idealistic stepbrother and Avril Elgar as a grumpy concierge provide impeccable support … The excitement lies in an unknown play combining an autobiographic authenticity with a statement about the role of women in late 19th-century society. The fact it is not without self-criticism makes it even richer.”

  • Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (three stars) - “Benedictsson sets the fictionalised scene in a Parisian basement studio, where Louise is recovering from typhoid and which designer Simon Daw makes stylishly bare. When visited by a famous sculptor, Zubin Varla's miscast, sexually uncharismatic Gustave Alland, she falls for his seductive patter, for empty compliments on the honesty of her eyes and her ‘fragile, bloodless’ hands … She ignores his warnings that love flares up and quickly dies down. And Gustav's seduction, his gradual enchantment of the doeful Louise becomes the main dramatic line of action … This process lacks an essential dynamic since the play is couched in fatalism. There is no contest. Louise, stereotype of submissive, mindless love always looks bound to succumb to Varla's shameless, archetypal male on the hunt for sex.”

  • Serena Davies in the Daily Telegraph - “What a fascinating addition to that strange, sad genre of suicide-topped Scandinavian theatre Victoria Benedictsson's The Enchantment proves to be … Zubin Varla plays Louise's fateful lover Gustave Alland, a sculptor, portrayed here as and a man of insidious charm. He is a ‘bloodsucker’, a ‘monster’ and a ‘bastard’, as his discarded lover Erna Wallden (a fierce Niamh Cusack) warns us … Detailed, fine performances from the cast who swish about in period silks make this dissection of the cruel dynamics of love gripping if not ultimately moving. But perhaps this was the intent.”

  • Benedict Nightingale in The Times (four stars) - “The Enchantment is not quite an autobiographical piece, because the woman at the centre, Louise Strandberg, has no creative work to fall back on after her affair with the great sculptor, Gustave Alland, reaches its inevitable end. However, her case raises questions that are still with us. Is there an essential, irreconcilable difference between the way that women and men regard relationships? For sophisticated women such as Louise or Benedictsson herself, is there any truth in the old saying that love for men is a thing apart, but women’s whole endeavour? ... Nancy Carroll gives an attractive, quiet, inward performance as Louise, an exile from small-town Sweden living in a Paris basement studio ... Enter Zubin Varla’s Gustave, who turns out to be both the former lover of her best friend, Niamh Cusack’s Erna, and a philanderer who has turned serial lovemaking into a credo. Indeed, what makes the play remarkable is its author’s ability to see through his seducer’s rhetoric and judge it and its grim results pretty harshly, yet to acknowledge that he is honest and open in his belief in a free love that cannot last for ever.”

    - by Ryan Woods & Terri Paddock