Apart from When We Dead Awaken, his final play, The Lady from the Sea is the only one of Ibsen's later works to take place predominantly out of doors. Ironically, though, even this alfresco, fiord-fringed world feels like a prison to the eponymous heroine. It's a fact strikingly signalled by the set of Lindsay Posner's production, which is overhung by an oppressive grid on to which huge, granitic boulders have been lashed. An uneasy alliance between the lifelike and the symbolic, this bizarre awning seems to epitomise the mixed nature of the play, in which a realistic drama about finding the true basis for a healthy marriage seems to have been crossed with a stark, primitive legend full of pre-Freudian insights into obsession.
To say that Ellida (Josette Simon) feels out of her element as the second wife to Dr Wangel (Pip Donaghy) is no mere figure of speech, for this young woman is like a stranded mermaid to whom the sea represents the kind of unbridled freedom she cannot find in her marriage. She is fixated, it emerges, by the memory of a mysterious stranger, who is also identified with the sea and with whom she once performed a symbolic marriage ceremony. But whereas in Rosmersholm the past re- emerges to destroy the chances of present happiness, in The Lady from the Sea, when the mythic 'husband' returns to claim Ellida, the past is eventually routed.
In the breaking of the Stranger's siren spell, it is Wangel who is both crucial and heroic. A sheepishly indecisive, bushy-bearded teddy bear at the outset, Donaghy's excellent Wangel visibly strains to understand a situation that is not on the normal agenda of a conventional country doctor. From a sort of fussy avuncular uxoriousness, he progresses to a movingly clear-eyed, self-sacrificial love for his wife, acknowledging that the way he 'bought' Ellida was as much a denial of her liberty as the psychic thraldom to which she is subjected by the Stranger. Cancelling the dubious bargain of their marriage, he grants her the independence to choose for herself.
Crop-haired head elegantly aloft on the long ebony column of her neck, Josette Simon gives a commanding regal presence to Ellida, but feels at odds with the psychology of the part (she's supposed to be fascinating, but not someone who might have cowed Cleopatra). Her switches between preoccupied distraction and smiling social graciousness are registered with too much of a mechanical click to convince you that she is genuinely haunted.
The subsidiary plots dramatise analogous debates about freedom and dominance in a playfully cynical, much less optimistic vein. The casts bring out the acidic humour well, especially Matilda Ziegler as Wangel's terminally frustrated daughter Bolette. To escape the stagnation of life at home, she agrees to marry a former tutor whom she does not love, in a pact that looks (even to her) suspiciously like the original unhealthy arrangement between her father and Ellida.
Male self-deception is rife in everyone but Wangel and exemplified in the most tellingly comic way by Paul Higgins's Lyngstrand, a consumptive sculptor serenely confident that looking after the needs of an artist would be a wonderful career for any woman. So when the grid rises at the end, and we hear for the first time the sounds of the sea, it's a decidedly qualified liberation with which we are faced.
'The Lady from the Sea' continues at the Lyric Hammersmith, King Street, London W6 (Box-office:
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