It can't be easy for Neve McIntosh playing the elusive Ellida Wangel in Ibsen's The Lady from the Sea.
Vanessa Redgrave – remembered as much for being wrapped in a white towel as for her darkly mellifluous voice – made the role of the amphibious heroine very much her own at the Royal Exchange, as well as at the Roundhouse in the late 1970s. Hard then to avoid comparisons – not so much in terms of exactly how this difficult part is interpreted by McIntosh, but as to whether or not she captures the mesmerising magic of "the lady from the sea".
With a lilting Scottish accent, her contained performance is pitched very differently from Redgrave's (and from that of Redgrave's late daughter, Natasha Richardson, who created a lost, lonely Ellida at the Almeida Theatre). McIntosh's modulated reading lacks something in texture, in its mystical dimension. Yet she's no fey creature of some weird and watery hallucination, but a woman submerged by bourgeois life and tormented by demons she encounters deep in her own consciousness. As she grows in the role, McIntosh will surely occupy it in a more hypnotic, visionary way.
The second wife of the thoroughly decent Dr Wangel (an assured performance by Reece Dinsdale), and uncomprehending step-mother to his two daughters, Ellida – who has herself lost a child – is trapped in a sexless marriage in a dull backwater. She believes herself possessed by the sailor-lover with piercing eyes who married them both to the sea before inconveniently disappearing. His return precipitates a crisis that forces her to find her voice (literally, since she's not always easy to hear) and thanks to the foresight of her husband – astonishing for the play's emergence in 1880 – a belief in herself. But when she's promised by Wangel that, "You shall have your freedom again, you shall live your own life", you can't help wondering whether or not Ellida really can swim free.
In an adaptation by David Eldridge every bit as poetic and absorbing as his versions of Ibsen's The Wild Duck and John Gabriel Borkman, Sarah Frankcom's sensitive, understated production allows the psychology of the relationships to unfold at its own unforced pace. The earnest, tubercular Lyngstrand (appealingly played by Samuel Collings) attracts sympathy until he proclaims that women can only find fulfilment by sacrificing themselves to their husbands' artistic objectives.
Wangel's daughters, Bolette and Hilde, are given contrasting, lively identities by Sara Vickers and Catrin Stewart respectively. The former is heartbreaking in her initial, horrified refusal to contemplate marrying her old tutor, Arnholm, before her quiet submission as she realises it is her only chance of escape, though at what dreadful price. As her somewhat creepy future husband, Jonathan Keeble exudes a dull worthiness lightened only by his character's unintentional mordant wit.
Liz Ascroft's naturalistic set is enhanced by scudding clouds and ripples in Chahine Yavroyan's lighting and Jack James's video projections of seascapes, landscapes and even, it seems, the swirling interior of Ellida's troubled mind.
To 6 November (0161 833 9833)
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