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 The Theatreguide.London Review

The Enchantment
Cottesloe Theatre      Autumn 2007

I once began a brief romance by warning the lady that at that point in my life I was not in the happily-ever-after business and could promise no more than what I hoped would be a mutually happy interlude.

Years later I told that story to another female friend, who laughed derisively and said 'No woman ever hears that statement.'

True or not, that is the premise and moral of this 1888 drama by the all-but-unknown Swedish writer Victoria Benedictsson, here adapted by Clare Bayley.

A Swedish country mouse comes to Paris and falls under the spell of a charismatic artist. Although he explicitly tells her that his life is made up of a string of affairs that last only as long as his very limited romantic attention span, she of course falls madly in love with him, with the inevitable tragic results.

In the era of Ibsen and Strindberg (both of whom Benedictsson knew), this was not an especially advanced view of sexual politics.

But Benedictsson's contribution was to spell it out and to make it clear that everyone involved, including her tragic heroine, knows exactly what is going on but is unable to stop male and female natures from taking their course.

The victim is no callow ingenue, but a practical woman in her 30s who both knows her own susceptibilities and understands everything the man tells her about himself

To doubly make sure of that, the playwright makes her best friend a former mistress of the artist, who warns against him by reciting word-for-word some of the lines he apparently uses with each new conquest.

And the seducer does have charm, and a certain kind of honesty, along with an ego so large there's scarcely room onstage for anyone else. And yet when he says he's not in the happily-ever-after business she dreams of happily-ever-after and is destroyed when he moves on.

It is no small accomplishment that Nancy Carroll makes this very un-PC woman both believable and sympathetic, by showing us that both the side that knows exactly what she's setting herself up for and the side that can't help doing it anyway exist within the same character.

Zubin Varla displays all the man's magnetic sexual power without letting us lose sight of what a slimeball he is, and Niamh Cusack burns with angry energy as the ex.

Other roles are small, though Judith Coke offers a nice comic cameo as a matchmaking housefrau and Patrick Drury a dignified and sympathetic one as a safe-but-dull romantic alternative.

Director Paul Miller's major contribution is choosing to stage the play in the round, giving our observation of these people's intimate lives a sometimes painfully voyeuristic quality.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of The Enchantment - National Theatre 2007

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