In a recent article, Germaine Greer placed the Swedish novelist and playwright Victoria Benedictsson on a roll call of woman artist suicides from Eleanor Marx and Dora Carrington to Diane Arbus and Sarah Kane. It’s a mortifying list, but it’s hard to deduce any common grounds for the tragedies beyond a sense of self-loathing.
Yet in the case of Benedictsson, who killed herself in 1888 shortly after completing this play, we are somehow invited to conclude that she was driven to the grave by a scandalous love affair with the Danish libertarian critic George Brandes. Ibsen and Strindberg were friends of Brandes, and it’s likely that Benedictsson’s story infused Hedda Gabler and Miss Julie, both written within two years of her death.
In her play, the heroine Louise Strandberg (Nancy Carroll) is not an artist, not even a woman of any political or social passion. She is simply eaten alive with mixed feelings of sensuality, anxiety and regret over her affair with an artist and philanderer, Gustave Alland (Zubin Varla), who seems to be suggestive of Auguste Rodin; Simon Daw’s handsome design incorporates a large photographic nude and a small bronze bust of that artist, who was certainly in Paris when this affair takes off.
The writer Clare Bayley discovered The Enchantment – 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’s 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.
Zubin Varla stalks her with predatory, tactical aplomb while Hugh Skinner as her concerned step-brother and Niamh Cusack as Erna Wallden, an appalled artist friend whom Gustave has debauched and abandoned already, bear witness to the inevitable catastrophe. There are lovely vignettes, too, from Avril Elgar as a vinegary concierge, Marlene Sidaway as a wise old housemaid and Patrick Drury as an emollient bank manager. A genuinely fascinating and persuasive discovery.