The power of love, as Huey Lewis And The News would have us believe, is a curious thing; it makes one man weep, makes another man sing. Or, in Victoria Benedictsson's The Enchantment, for artist Gustave Alland it is a fleeting moment in which he can create his very best work, while for the women he loves and leaves behind it is an all-consuming, life-changing affair. Matthew Amer attended the world premiere of the recently unearthed European tragedy at the National's Cottesloe theatre.
Louise Strandberg has not had an easy life. Her father died while she was a child, her sister descended into madness and, more recently, her mother has passed away. Oh, and she is recovering from typhoid. She is weak, wan, helpless; her friends must care for her every need.
Chance brings respected artist Gustave Alland into her life, and everything changes. He, a serial lover, casts his spell on her, and though her closest friend – who has had her own dealings with Alland – warns her off, she succumbs. Her only escape from devastating heartbreak is to leave the sunny, cheery surrounds of Paris and head back to her dull, dreary Swedish home. Yet there lies nothing but depression and a bank manager who has loved her since she was a child sitting on his knee.
Benedictsson's play, in a new version by Clare Bayley, creates all manner of power struggles based around love. Zubin Varla's Alland is a cold, calculating lover, manipulating women to his ways. He never seems overly affectionate, often keeps his distance, and never lies about his way of loving and moving on, yet is charismatic enough to hold women in his spell. Quite how he gets away with lines like "You've become almost beautiful yourself" is a trick many of us would like to learn.
Niamh Cusack, playing former lover and best friend Erna, gives a performance riddled with anger, bitterness and hate, with an underlying care for those close to her.
Nancy Carroll's Louise, though physically weak, is strong of spirit, yet is drawn into the allure of a passionate relationship. Here is the crux of The Enchantment. Paris is full of passion, art and happiness. Simon Daw's set has a blossoming tree in the garden, and the sun always shines. Here, Louise can have a fleeting affair and enjoy it, while back in Sweden waits the dour bank manager and a whole world of rain.
Of course, this is the late 1800s and happiness comes at a cost. The Alland affair must come to an end – that is just the type of guy he is – leaving Louise with the shame of having given herself to him outside of marriage and the knowledge that there will probably never be another lover like him. Still, she has an answer, with which she seems content. It is better to have loved and lost, it seems…
The Enchantment runs at the National Cottesloe until 1 November.