(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 11/22.)
Watching David Antrobus's rare and exhilarating revival of this early Ibsen play, written in 1862 when he was 34, I was reminded of another youthful work: Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost. Both have a headlong exuberance, are filled with caustic satire and ultimately show impetuous romance giving way to hard-headed realism. In both plays you also see intimations of the genius to come.
Set in a sunlit summer garden, seductively realised in Sam Dowson's design, Ibsen's play begins with a swaggering assault on bourgeois convention by a self-assured young poet, Falk. In particular he attacks middle-class marriage and prolonged engagements ("a temperance-house of happiness"), which he sees as the enemy of creativity; and in this he is joined by his adored Swanhild, another free spirit and a proto-feminist aching to escape her suffocating existence. But, in the second half, Ibsen movingly puts the case for the opposition. An uxorious pastor and a long-engaged lawyer speak up on behalf of marriage, and when a rich businessman offers Swanhild "the quiet flow of deep regard" in contrast to Falk's fervent passion, the heroine is left with an agonising choice.