The stage curls into a wave; the backdrop suggests a Turner. It’s not every play that’s proved suited to the Rose Theatre auditorium. But Stephen Unwin’s production of Ibsen’s The Lady From The Sea—with its clever set design by Simon Higlett—feels right at home. It might be that the unusual contours of the space—the mixture of traditional and modern design—fit the strange contours of a play that shifts restlessly between modes and genres, merging domestic realism and folktale, naturalism and expressionism, as it dramatises a pivotal moment of crisis and decision in the life of its fascinating female protagonist.
There is evidently something about that protagonist, Ellida Wangel, torn between the compromises of her marriage and the danger and excitement offered by the reappearance of an old lover, that greatly appeals to the distaff side of the Redgrave clan. Tony Richardson directed Vanessa Redgrave in the play in the late 1970s, while Natasha Richardson gave a blazingly intense performance in the role in Trevor Nunn’s production at the Almeida in 2003.
In Unwin’s production, it’s the turn of Joely Richardson to wade into the waters previously navigated by her mother and sister. And, returning to the stage for the first time in a while, Richardson acquits herself extremely well throughout, finding plenty of variety in the role, and compellingly communicating the character’s contradictory qualities.
By turns vulnerable and defiant, bewildered and resolved, Richardson truly suggests a creature from another element, while the occasional appearance of her mother’s gestures and inflections—hands to the face; a throaty contralto note—adds an extra level of poetry to the portrayal. The scene in which Ellida reveals the “terrifying attraction” that “The Stranger” holds for her to her husband, Dr. Wangel (a terrifically sympathetic Malcolm Storry), is especially strong.
Unwin’s production, which avails itself of the director’s own supple translation, begins superbly, with all the interest and intensity one could hope for. If the second half doesn’t quite match the opening for impact Unwin nonetheless offers a lucid and engaging account of the play, that is, I think, one of the Rose’s stronger productions so far.
A great part of the play’s interest lies in its exploration of an awkward step-family situation, and Ellida’s difficulties in fulfilling the role of mother to Wangel’s two daughters, Bolette and Hilde; this aspect is powerfully conveyed here. Madeleine Worrall is a poignant Bolette, quietly nursing her own sense of frustration and entrapment, while as Hilde—cutting and contemptuous yet craving her step-mother’s attention—Alexandra Moen contributes a lively, unsentimental characterisation.
A weak element is Gudmundur Thorvaldsson who delivers a sadly stilted performance in the small but pivotal role of The Stranger from Ellida’s past: dapperly-dressed (in a very odd costuming choice), stolid and lacking in mystery or magnetism, he’s more “man at C&A” than man from the sea, with the result that Ellida’s dilemma loses some of its force. But the rest of the cast inhabit their roles vividly, with Sam Crane funny and exasperating as the sickly aspiring sculptor Lyngstrand, and Robert Goodale making pleasingly light work of Ballested, a stammering jack-of-all-trades who intones what turns out to be the play’s affirmative maxim: that, with freedom and responsibility, human beings can indeed “acclimatise themselves.” In sum, it’s worth diving in.
Booking until March 17th.
Reviewed for British Theatre Guide.