With the rise in popularity of TV shows like Game of Thrones and Vikings, it seems it was only a matter of time before Ibsen’s The Vikings of Helgeland was brought to the stage, here in its London premiere. With its atmospheric use of rousing orchestral music, authentic fur costumes and rustic wooden set, this production certainly has the look and feel of an epic drama.
In actuality, the narrative has a much smaller scale. A family drama set in 10th century Norway, it involves the children of the authoritarian Viking Ornulf (John McLear) – predominantly his daughter Dagny (Emma Kemp) and adopted daughter Hjordis (Roseanna Lynch) who steal away with their rivalling warrior lovers. What ensues is a tale of revenge and honour, a family at war and sorcery.
Despite the onstage fire, the cast don’t quite show the necessary passion to set the drama ablaze. The romantic twists of the second half are much needed to inject some excitement into the narrative, yet they come too late and are easily predicted. The male leads, though intensely performed by Harry Anton (Sigurd) and Fergus Leathem (Gunnar), are neither aggressive barbarians nor poetic heroes, whilst Emma Kemp’s Dagny is too naïve and girlish. As such, it’s Roseanne Lynch who offers an inspired performance as the proud and manipulative Hjordis who delves into witchcraft. Lynch truly commits to the role, bringing some magic to the stage.
Ibsen may have aimed for Shakespearean grandeur with this play, but it delivers neither the drama nor the poetry of the Bard. The script is verbose and provides little action, comedy or romance. As such, the pacing is sluggish, in need of some light relief amongst all the brooding speeches. It’s certainly an ambitious play to take on, but the cast don’t quite offer believable depth of character.
What director Antonio Ferrara and designer Caitlin Abbott do nail is a suitably evocative mood. The minimalist set hints at frosty snowscapes; past legends are shown through mythical silhouettes; Gunnar’s child is depicted by a truly terrifying looking puppet; and the cast all perform with Scottish accents – not quite Norwegian but appropriately gruff and consistent across the board. Yet for a play about brutal warriors, passionate romance, tragic deaths and a touch of the occult, it all feels a little bloodless.
Watch: The Vikings of Helgeland runs at the Drayton Arms Theatre until 22nd November.