Review: The Lady From The Sea, Royal Exchange

“What is it you long for?”

The second part of my double bill at Manchester’s Royal Exchange was the production in the main theatre Ibsen’s The Lady From The Sea. Presented here in a new version by David Eldridge, using a literal translation by Charlotte Barslund, it marks the third time Eldridge has delved into the Nordic playwright’s work, this time working his stuff on one of his lesser-performed works. Just as a quick aside, I can highly recommend the blueberry cheesecake muffin from the bar at the theatre, it was a little piece of heaven!!

Set in a small fjordside Norwegian town, living a passive half life between sea and mountains, Ellida broods over her past love, despite having settled into a comfortable marriage of convenience with Doctor Wangel. Her reluctance to play the role of doting wife and stepmother results in Wangel bending over backwards to try and please her by inviting a man from her past to stay and cheer her up yet a web of misunderstandings and frustrations, that stretches all the way throughout this household, as the pull between domesticity and emotional freedom is explored.

In the main role of Ellida, Neve McIntosh plays the part of the outsider well, her Celtic demeanor marking her as different from the outset but it is such a cool and distant performance that it didn’t really generate any empathy from me. Her turmoil at the dilemma she faces remained understated and whilst Scandinavian reserve might have been the order of the day, a little more passion at the return of her sexy sailor might not have gone amiss. Reece Dinsdale’s Wangel is too much of a wet blanket to engender concern at the state of his marriage and Bill Ward’s appearances as the sailor are far too brief to make any kind of an impression making this central thread rather underwhelming.

I enjoyed the subplots of the Wangel daughters more with their slightly more engaging storylines and more colourful characters. Sara Vickers as Bolette gave brighter light to the predicament that women faced, of what level of compromise is acceptable in order to achieve fulfilment and Catrin Stewart played Hilde’s dark humour well, connecting with Samuel Collings’ very good Lyngstrand.

The overall direction of the play didn’t help matters either: everything is very muted and Sarah Frankcom’s choices always err to the subtle, leaving it feeling generally unfocused. Liz Ascroft’s design doesn’t evoke enough of the sea which is meant to be ever-present, the use of projections is quite clunky and forces the actors to use the space oddly; the sound never rouses out of the languid and nor does the lighting. Altogether, it is cohesive but it just did nothing for me.

Generally speaking, Ibsen has never been a playwright that has appealed to me; I try my best and watch different productions of his plays to see if a lightbulb moment will occur and I’ll suddenly see what others get. But this was not that production. Granted it is less gloomy than most with as close to an upbeat ending as you’ll ever see from Ibsen, but I just failed to see what illuminatory qualities were offered here, what insight was being offered and what relevance it has to today’s audiences.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: £3
Booking until 6th November

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