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St John’s Night, Jermyn Street Theatre, London


Jermyn Street Theatre is partial to rummaging for rarities in the back catalogue of great dramatists. Well, they don’t come much rarer than this – the UK premiere, no less, of St John’s Night which  Ibsen wrote at the tender age of 23 and later tried to disown.

It’s the first play he set in modern Norway, but the everyday world of lost lawsuits and misappropriated property is presided over here by subversive creatures from folklore.  Subtitled “a fairy tale comedy”, the play advocates re-connection with ancient tradition, while also offering a high-spirited satire on the kind of naïve,  born-again nationalism of city types who are mere tourists blundering on a false heritage trail.

Anthony Biggs’s beguiling, imaginatively staged production has a light, witty touch with these conscious incongruities.  Two goblins in hook-nosed masks and grubby frock-coats perch aloft on James Perkins’s ingenious, multi-level set which, with its folding flaps, turns a tiny space into a flexible arena that can whisk us in a trice to an enchanted mountainside. 

Luke Bateman who plays one of these creatures also performs his own attractive score in which water phone and Tibetan music bowl add startling shimmers of the uncanny. In Puck-like mode, the other goblin (Harry Napier) tips spit through a French horn into a bowl of punch and two young couples find their rightful partners while under the influence of the doctored drink. 

As relayed here, the proceedings have a slightly bonkers comic/romantic charm. One moment, your heart is being twisted, the next you wonder whether this show will do for Norway what was done for Finland by the Monty Python Fish-Slapping Dance.

Louise Calf and Ed Birch bring a lovely, touching awkwardness to the couple who discover their affinities while watching the magical vision of the Hall of the Mountain King, beautifully staged here as a long reaction-shot against crackling bonfire light.

The absurdity of Poulsen, the gloriously more-Norwegian-than-thou aesthete, is intensified by the drolly counter-intuitive casting of the excellent black actor, Danny Lee Wynter.  Decked out in a blonde Dorothy Squires-style wig, he delivers the character’s pampered pomposities with a deliciously funny dreamy gentleness that marks Poulsen out as a self-absorbed innocent rather than a hypocrite.     

No lost masterpiece, by any means, but a revealing one-off which, in this brave and resourceful revival give you access to the mind of a great artist while it was in the process of youthful self-discovery.

To Aug 4; 0207 287 2875