When first published in 1862, Ibsen's early work Love's Comedy caused an eruption of moral outrage in his native Norway for its scandalous representation of the role of women in marriage. Anyone expecting heaving bosoms and exploding corsets will be disappointed, however. Although "rigid whalebone and cruel stays" are discussed, often at great length, Love's Comedy is the theatre of ideas, not of actions.
The play takes place at the home of Mrs Halm (Julia Watson), a dominant and somewhat meddling matriarch who crows over her achievement in marrying off seven daughters and nieces. Over the course of an evening house party a neat selection of relationships are held up for our scrutiny, from the brisk and functional to the new and idealistic. After a brief comedy of mistaken identity the play settles into a debate on the nature of love and marriage, and whether the two necessarily go hand in hand.
The social conventions of the time are clearly stifling, and Sam Dowson’s set, reminiscent of a mind-your-manners tea party complete with blossoming trees and manicured lawn, provides an apt backdrop for a little fiery rebellion. Falk (Mark Arends) and Swanhild (Sarah Winter) are determined not to submit to a world in which marriage seems little more than a business transaction, but they are very much in the minority and often seen lurking in corners and on sidelines like disobedient children.
In Act 1 of this new translation by Don Carleton, the comedy of the title is well realised in a series of excellent one-liners and pithy put downs. Act 2 descends further into speechifying but provides a serious moral debate which, although at times seeming repetitious and circular, continues to raise pertinent issues.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the play is the ambiguity of the message. There is a clear sense that Falk speaks Ibsen’s ideas, and yet the conventional Styver seems in many ways happier than the endlessly questioning Falk. Swanhild is full of fire, rebellion and feminist potential, and yet her power to choose her destiny is limited to two options: marry A, or marry B.
Sadly 150 years ago option C - take a gap year and find yourself at an Ashram in India - had yet to be invented, but there is still much to ponder for the modern audience, and much to marvel at in the foresight of a young playwright, yet to make his name, who was prepared to take on the establishment and speak up for voiceless wives of Norway.