“You’re like the sea, always changing”
Recent weeks have seen a couple of instances where theatre has successfully challenged my preconceptions: A Midsummer Night’s Dream saw me reassess Filter and David Eldridge surprised me with some fantastic writing that really resonated with me in In Basildon. Ibsen however has been a major stumbling block for me – I’ve tried my best, taking in several productions of his work but that connection has never emerged, the reason for his continued popularity completely eluding me. So it would be a lie for to me to say that I went to the Rose Kingston’s new production of The Lady from the Sea with a completely open mind – I was amenable to having my mind changed but it was with a heavy heart that I went there.
I’ve seen the play once before – ironically in a version by David Eldridge at the Royal Exchange in Manchester – and it was not a happy experience. Ibsen’s story focuses on the nymph-like figure of Ellida, settled uneasily in a marriage of convenience to Dr Wangel as memories of her past continue to have a strong pull on her. Wangel tries to facilitate resolution by inviting a man from her past to stay but he stirs up great emotional swells that threaten to pull Ellida back to her beloved sea.
My main reason for booking in the end was the opportunity to see Joely Richardson on the stage, ticking another member of the Redgrave dynasty off the list, and in some ways I’m glad I did. Her luxurious voice and suggestive mannerisms betray the family connection in the best possible way as she portrays the flightiness and fragility of Ellida extremely well on the wooden planks that cover the expanse of the stage in front of the Turner-esque hued cyclorama that suggests the Norwegian sky.
But in a story that I already wasn’t too keen on, matters are exacerbated here by director Stephen Unwin’s self-penned version which overplays the relative lightness (for Ibsen) and moves the production into strange light comedy territory. This has the consequence of lessening the profundity of much of the action, whether the deep emotional pulls that torment Ellida or the grudgingly tolerated maritals come-ons of the ageing tutor who is depressingly the only hope for one of Wangel’s step-daughters. Scenes that ought to catch the breath made the audience laugh and so the emotional narrative is completely skewed.
Combined with supporting performances that largely failed to inspire: Sam Crane, whose work at the Globe I have liked, underwhelmed with a performance that felt too close to those he has given on Bankside; Malcolm Storry’s bumbling geniality played it a little too safe, and Gudmundur Thorvaldsson’s outsider just didn’t really work. But my feelings about the play aside, I really do feel that the choice to play so much for comedy is a counter-productive one which almost makes a mockery of how difficult and extraordinary female self-emancipation was at the time.