There's no rest for the wicked, nor, it seems, for former artistic directors of the National Theatre. Trevor Nunn, its recently departed chief, is not a man to rest on his laurels. He's hardly had time to sit and enjoy them when he's bobbing up again to inaugurate the splendidly revamped Almeida with this absorbing and poetic production of Ibsen's The Lady from the Sea.
The play is not the softest option for a return to the freelance street. A weird, tricky blend of bourgeois realism and folk-tale symbolism, it focuses on Ellida Wangel, a young woman who, in her compulsive dips and creaturely yearning for the sea, makes Esther Williams look like an almost militant landlubber.
In the everyday world, Ellida is the second wife of a backwater doctor and the step- mother of a couple of resentful daughters. In her deepest being, though, she is still the possession of a mysterious and long-departed sailor-lover who, before he vanished, married them jointly to the sea. The crisis of choice is precipitated when he suddenly returns to her from her amicable but now sexless marriage.
There are certain roles for which talent and skill are not enough. The performer needs a streak of mad genius to pull them off. As the amphibious Ellida, Natasha Richardson can do the lostness, the child-bride dependence and the loneliness, and she intermittently projects a fleeting sense of the otherworldly. But too often, she speaks through a fixed, teeth-baring perma-smile that makes her look more like a ventriloquist than a haunted and haunting human mermaid, cruelly stranded out of her element. It's a decent performance, but the mystical dimension is missing from this heroine's primal nostalgia for the sea. In her, possession manifests itself as the wooden whimpering and shaking of neurosis.
Nor does it help that, when he arrives, the Stranger (Eoin McCarthy) is a square-jawed clean-cut hunk, less a dark projection of lawless erotic desire than a chap you could safely introduce to your mother. Surely we should not feel that Ellida was utterly deluded in her fearful fascination?
Much of the production, though, is beautifully judged and the psychology of the relations is richly textured and shrewd. John Bowe finely conveys the troubled decency and concern of the doctor husband who, in giving Ellida her freedom, breaks the spell and leaves her at liberty to redefine their relationship as a loving mutual bond rather than as a business deal between a cosseted chattel and protective owner. For me, though, the most moving part of the production was the scene where we watch the older stepdaughter, Bolette (splendidly played Claudie Blakley) walk straight into Ellida's initial mistake.
As the price of escape and financial security Bolette accepts marriage to a older man whom she does not love (a middle-aged, wife-hunting teacher whose uncomfortable transfer of interest from Ellida to his former pupil is traced with subtle precision by Tim McInnerny). Racked with tearful and incredulous distress when she is first presented with his proposition, she breaks your heart as she desolately fights her instincts and her acute realism so that she can thrust her wrists into gold-plated handcuffs.
The production has a superb moody score by Shaun Davey and a lovely set by Rob Howell that depicts the scenery of mountains and fjord as a light fresco wash on the curved brick wall at the back of the stage. Even when played on by Hugh Vanstone's excellent blue, wavy lighting, this set gives the great outdoors a curiously indoor feel – which is just right for a drama whose heroine is stifled by any location that is not the open sea.
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