Lady Inger

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.

Reviews by Richard Beck

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The Blurb

Ibsen’s Lady Inger is a powerful play. Partly based on a true story in 1500s Norway, Ibsen’s five-act drama charts a series of difficult decisions taken by a woman who is forced into the shoes of her recently deceased husband. A widow living in an isolated castle off the coast of Trondheim is the last remaining vestige of Norway’s national identity. With the weight of expectation on her and the chauvinist attitudes of those in support of her, she must calculate what gambles she is willing to take for her family and her nation. 

Ottisdotter’s adaptation of the text streamlines this play written when Ibsen was only 27 years old and charts, even more intensely, the dramatic decisions that Lady Inger must take to save herself, her people and Norway.  

Ibsen’s Lady Inger is an excellent exposition of female leadership, and women in power. The central character provides early formations of Ibsen’s later Hedda Gabler, Nora Helmer and Rebecca West.  

Will Lady Inger overcome the odds and defeat the men set dead against her?  

ottisdotter is a collaboration with a specific interest in lesser-known and obscure plays with dimensions that emphasise the oppression and subversion of women in society. ottisdotter have produced five works: Ibsen’s Lady Inger (2013) (c/o Jump Cut), Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s Emilia Galotti (2014, 2016), Ibsen’s Feast at Solhaug (2015) and Ibsen’s Olaf (2018) 

Michael Billington (2016) on ottisdotter’s Emilia Galotti at The Space Theatre. 

This 1772 tragedy by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing is exactly the kind of play you would hope to find at the National Theatre. Instead, it gets a rare British revival in a fringe theatre on London’s Isle of Dogs. You have to admire the enterprise of a company that has resurrected a seminal European text. 


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