The Lady from the Sea, The Almeida, London

Too little mystery in this tale of the sea
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The Independent Culture

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. Indeed, his bottom can barely have brushed those garlands, because we now find him bobbing up again to inaugurate the splendidly refurbished Almeida with this absorbing and poetic production of Ibsen's The Lady from the Sea.

The play is not the softest option that Nunn could have chosen for his return to the freelance street. A weird, tricky blend of bourgeois realism and folk-tale symbolism, it focuses on Ellida, 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 (John Bowe) and stepmother of a couple of resentful daughters. In her deepest being, though, she is still obsessed by a mysterious and long-departed sailor-lover who, before he vanished, married the pair of them to the sea. The crisis of choice is precipitated when he suddenly returns to reclaim her from her amicable but now sexless marriage.

There are certain roles where talent and skill are not enough. The performer needs a streak of mad genius to pull them off. As Ellida, Natasha Richardson can project a fragile and lonely otherworldliness, but she too often wears a fixed, teeth-baring perma-smile that makes her look more like a ventriloquist than a haunted and haunting women, cruelly stranded out of her element. It's a decent performance, but the mystical dimension is lacking.

Nor does it help that the stranger (Eoin McCarthy), when he arrives, turns out to be a square-jawed, clean-cut hunk, less a darn projection of lawless erotic desire, than a chap you could safely introduce to your mother. It gives the impression that Ellida was even more deluded than the play suggests.

For me, the most moving sequence was the scene where we watch the older stepdaughter Bolette (splendidly played by Claudie Blakley) walk into Ellida's initial mistake and accept marriage to an older man she does not love as the price of escape and financial security. What makes it gut-wrenching is the way Ms Blakley indicates Bolette's desolate awareness of this.

The production has a superb moody score by Shaun Davey and an atmospheric set by Rob Howell.