The Lady from the Sea, Arcola Theatre, London

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The Independent Culture

Ibsen's The Lady from the Sea is a strange, compelling blend of marine symbolism and bourgeois realism. It's as though a situation akin to that in A Doll's House had washed up in a folk tale about the sufferings of a stranded mermaid. Using a forceful, often Irish-sounding new version by Frank McGuinness, the play receives a welcome revival now at the Arcola. Hannah Eidinow's absorbing, if distinctly uneven, production boasts a central performance of searing psychological insight by Lia Williams but it fails to give proper due to the caustic ironies in this amphibious drama.

Needing financial security, Ellida Wangel has settled for a life as second wife to a dull, provincial doctor and stepmother to his two resentful daughters. She is still spiritually possessed, though, by the mysterious Stranger, a former sailor-lover who has left her with a desperate yearning for the sea. When this figure, a blatant representation of unrepressed sexuality, returns to claim her, it forces a crisis in her sterile marriage.

Clad in a gown of sea-green silk, the unremittingly intense Williams eschews the option of portraying Ellida as a cross-species dreamer. Instead, she confronts you with an intelligent modern woman who, in no mere figure of speech, is out of her element – trapped, terrified and gasping for air in what looks like a protracted panic attack.

Challenged by the stranger, she becomes hollow-eyed and fixated and anxious to make her husband understand that the problem is not external but rooted deep inside her.

The play approaches the question of freedom within wedlock from several angles. Jonathan Hackett ably conveys the distraught decency of the doctor, but fails to register the anguish of his inner-struggle before he breaks the spell by allowing Ellida liberty of choice.

Likewise, when the frustrated older daughter (Alison McKenna) agrees to a loveless marriage of convenience to her grizzled, erstwhile tutor (Sean Campion), the production needs to underline the black, painful irony that she is repeating Ellida's costly mistake. Chris Moran gives such a crude, cartoon performance as the artist Lyngstrand that it drains the comedy from his presumption that any woman would feel privileged to be his muse.

But as the younger daughter, Hilde, Fiona O'Shaughnessy is a tantalising, husky-voiced enchantress, suggesting both an impish siren and a shrewd potential soul-mate for her stepmother.

Until 31 May (020-7503 1646)

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