Ottisdotter theatre company’s production of Lady Inger provides a rare opportunity to see one of Henrik Ibsen’s earliest, least performed and less well-known works. His writings from this early period form their specialist domain to which they have given years of study and performance. Aficionados of Ibsen might want to seize this chance, while seasoned theatre goers might decide to give it a miss. There is often a reason why a play has been presented in the UK on only five occasions in 120 years, with one of those being by the same company.
A rare opportunity to see one of Henrik Ibsen’s earliest, least performed and less well-known works
Amongst the murmurings to be heard during the interval and afterwards the name of Shakespeare could often be heard along with a mention of Hamlet (the Danish connection making this inevitable) and Macbeth, for the hand-wringing agony of tragic death. The translation never reaches the heights to which the Bard rose, indeed it’s a rather odd mix of archaic and modern English, but the plot is riddled with complexities and intrigues worthy of his histories. The story is based on events that took place in 1528 in the ongoing conflicts between Norway, Denmark, and Sweden; part of a period (1387-1814) for which Ibsen coined the phrase “400 years of darkness”. It’s something of a minefield and for what follows I’m indebted to notes that were prepared for a production at Vassar College in 1924. I’m glad they worked it out.
The Danes, have slain or outlawed all the old Norwegian nobility, and have sway over their lands. Their ally is King Gustav of Sweden, but their position is not secure as he faces attempts to oust him by a party in Sweden headed by Peter Kanzler. The Norwegian peasantry consider this an opportune moment to mount their own rebellion against Denmark and look for a leader in Lady Inger Gyldenlove, to whom they make their case in the first half of the play. She is sympathetic, but although she hates the Danes and would like nothing better than to drive them from the land, she dare not align with Sweden for fear the Danes will discover that Nils Stensson, the son she had with Stens Sture, is held as a hostage in Sweden by Peter Kanzler. He has promised to return her son to her when she vows to support the rebel cause. However, the presence of the Danish representative Nils Lykke, who realises her considerable influence as leader of the main regional province, leaves her between a rock and hard place in terms of her son, despite the strategic strength of her position.
The historical complexities of the story are further complicated by deaths, marriages and love stories woven into the political fray. Ottisdotter have reduced Ibsen’s original five-act play to a two-act drama that still runs for two hours and twenty minutes. That would not be an issue if this were a gripping thriller, but the slow pace of the action and convoluted dialogue that is interspersed with monologues and soliloquies that never really engage make for hard work.
Director Mark Ewbank makes impressive use of the performance area and the number of locations for exits and entrances, with the audience on two sides and a minimalist set. The cast of Kristin Duffy (Lady Inger), Ivan Comisso ( Nils Lykke), Thomas Everatt (Olaf Skaktavi, Juliet Ibberson (Elina Gyldenløve), Joe Lewis (Nils Stenson) and Siôn Grace (Chief Steward Bjørn) are clearly invested in the work, but it is difficult to find any emotional attachment to them as they plough through a text that makes for stilted delivery. Ibberson and Comisso generate something of a romantic relationship and Lewis injects some invigorating youthful energy into the fray, but it’s not enough to save the day.
It’s an all-round valiant effort with commendable devotion to the cause of promoting an obscure work, but it seems like a lot of energy that could have been directed towards a different and more engaging play.