One of Ibsen's first plays is brought into rare light in this UK premiere, and the result speaks less of the great dramatist and more of a bizarre experiment that doesn't quite come off. However, a fantastic production and excellent performances more than make up for any scriptual inconsistencies.
In a plot mired helplessly somewhere between A Midsummer Night's Dream, a Wildean farce and Ibsen's own later work, St John's Night pairs riotous comedy with a rather complex family drama - Mrs Berg has orchestrated Juliana's engagement to Birk, who has come up from Christiana to announce the engagement in their country town in the Telemark. He brings with him Poulsen, a noted critic and bookworm, who falls instantly for Juliana - who shares both their affections. Birk, meanwhile, notes that he and Juliana have nothing in common, and starts to realise the deep bond he shares with Juliana's step-sister, Anna. However, their bond is deeper than first thought, although explaining the complex family drama that unfolds would take far too long. Luckily, this is still a comedy, and it all ends happily after midsummer night, where the couples steal into the forest and secrets are revealed.
It's impossible not to see much of this play through the hindsight of history, and it does owe a lot to other playwrights - much of the plot is simply a modernisation of Shakespeare, with two intertwined couples getting lost in the forest, and the rest is a distinctly familial farce in the style of The Importance of Being Earnest. The two marry uneasily - the tone bounces from the serious to ridiculous too quickly and too frequently. As a whole, it's a rare miss from the master.
However, in detail, it's still got Ibsen's fantastic grasp of character and use of voice - and the actors, in most cases, give their all and manage to hold the madness together. Danny Lee Wynter stands out in particular, delivering a scene-stealing performance as the ludicrous Poulsen - Ibsen's dig at the city-dwelling nationalists who spoke only of grand Nordic traditions and "returning to the land", but when actually faced with it didn't quite know what to make of it. Louise Calf and Isla Carter take a leaf out of his book as the pair of sisters, imbuing them both with mad energy, but it is Ed Birch's Birk who provides the more solid, dependable counterpoint to Poulsen's self-inflated majesty.
It's these dichotomies between the country and the city, the poet and the realist, and myth and reality that give the piece a semblance as a whole - and the energy the actors imbue them with that provides the glue. The cartoonish set works beautifully with the comedic scenes, but stands at odds with the more serious moments - just as the upbeat music provided by the two goblins (Harry Napier and Luke Bateman) isn't quite right during the final moments that verge on legal drama, but add a pleasant bounciness to the pastoral comedy earlier.
It's difficult to give a definitive criticism to the piece - the plot is odd and rather difficult to enjoy as a whole, while individual characters and scenes are excellently crafted and very enjoyable to watch. Many production aspects fit certain scenes like a glove, while they feel odd and out-of-place during others. What raises this production is the stellar acting - but I'm not sure I can recommend it as a whole.