The Enchantment, Cottesloe, National Theatre, London

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As anyone familiar with Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain” knows, men cheat on creative women at their peril: their misdemeanours may well end up broadcast to the world. So it is, in part, with The Enchantment. This 1888 play by Swedish writer Victoria Benedictsson is a thinly disguised account of the treatment she received at the hands of Danish critic Georg Brandes, and his onstage equivalent, Gustave Alland, certainly emerges as a self-serving creep. But there is a tragic undertow to the piece and to its current staging. For Benedictsson wrote this play shortly before she committed suicide and she is scarcely known beyond her native shore. Clare Bayley’s new version gives the play its first British outing and reveals Benedictsson to be a playwright of wit and insight. Recognition is the sweetest revenge.

But most importantly, Bayley’s sensitive translation and Paul Miller’s delicate production demonstrate that the play is not just a vengeful outpouring, with the heroine as victim. The play opens in a Paris studio, where Swedish visitor Louise falls in love both with an artist and with the significance of art itself. In the plight of this intelligent woman with no occupation or outlet for her intellect, Benedictsson depicts the stifling restrictions on 19th-century women. She also suggests that Louise has a self-destructive impulse: Alland (Zubin Varla), a compulsive philanderer, makes his cynical attitude to love very plain, yet Louise pins her hopes on him. To some extent, then, the play offers an
insight into the obsessive mindset of a depressive person.

All this means that it is worth sticking with, in spite of the fact that in the first act it moves so slowly that it sometimes all but grinds to a halt, and in spite of the fact that Alland’s treatment of Louise is so cutting in places that her devotion is hard to credit. “I can’t measure up to your bourgeois little yardstick,” he remarks at one point. But the second act, set in Sweden, reveals Benedictsson capable of shrewd social comedy, as well as feeling, and Miller’s fine production slowly gathers momentum, so that by the end you are completely gripped.

The acting, on Simon Daw’s meticulously realistic set, is first-rate, led by Nancy Carroll as a beautiful, fragile Louise and Niamh Cusack as her exasperated, worldly-wise neighbour. The great pity is that Benedictsson did not survive her own rejection to write more.

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