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Daddyís New Lady Friend Is so Funny. The Lady from the Sea at Rose Theatre, Kingston

By: Benedikte Berntzen

The Rose Theatre
Dr. Wangel: "This longing for the absolute, the infiniteÖ Itíll sweep you off into the darkness". Malcolm Storry and Joely Richardson in The Lady from the Sea. Photo: Johan Persson/ The Rose Theatre.

A stepmother who cannot communicate with her husband’s children. A new family constellation in which there is a little too much drinking. A daughter who is taken for granted but who is given a new chance. An amateur who takes himself too seriously rather than being industrious. And the longing for something bigger and more intense beyond domestic life.
How can the production of The Lady from the Sea at The Rose Theatre Kingston, be characterised by gestures, ankle length dresses and watch chains, when the story sounds so disturbingly familiar, 124 years after it was written? Stephen Unwin has once more adapted Ibsen for the British stage, but in The Lady from the Sea it is Ibsen who is responsible for the current relevance.

Fruen fra havet -The Lady from the Sea - is a well-known play in England, made particularly famous through Vanessa Redgrave’s achievement as Ellida Wangel in London and on Broadway from 1976 to 1979, and her daughter Natasha Richardson in 2003. There have been high expectations linked with the fact that Joely Richardson has taken over the role after her mother and big sister. The critics have been full of benevolence, but have not been overly enthusiastic. Like many other Anglo-American Ibsen productions, the performance suffers from a style of presentation which is a little too conscientious and decoratively well-dressed. The result is that the story becomes a sermon from a bygone era in a foreign country rather than a story which forces the audience to take a look at their own private experiences. As the critic in The Telegraphalso points out, the performance lacks the passion and the magnanimity which are embedded in Ibsen’s mythical theme about nature having power over the will of the human being.

Nordic summer distinguishes the style of this production. Here there are lilacs, picket fences, pale outdoor furniture and a flagpole. The stage picture is dominated by a partly cloudy sky and a cover whose form may be inspired by a wave. The action starts with Ballestad (Robert Goodale), dancing teacher, painter and hairdresser, meeting the sickly Lyngstrand (Sam Crane) who thinks he is about to become a pictorial artist. The two make up a duo which many will recognise from the history of comedy. The stuttering Lyngstrand raises some laughter when he promotes his idea that "the wife shall become like her husband". She shall make him "comfortable" and that is supposed to be "wonderful" for a woman. Alexandra Moen creates a funny Hilde with many sarcasms and the grotesque Ibsen-humour we know so well with lines such as "He won´t live too long. I think that´s exciting." Arnholm is the inappropriate nerd we know from the hand of Ibsen when he reminds Ellida that she is named after a boat and does not have a Christian name. But as he has proposed to her once, he does admit that he feels a little "awkward". The scene between him and Bolette in which it becomes clear that she will be able to leave the koi pond she lives in is well worth waiting for. Hesitantly, the two of them make plans for the future, thereby foreshadowing how it will end for Mr and Mrs Wangel.

When Dr Wangel (Malcolm Storry) introduces his wife with "here she is, our lady from the sea", Richardson sweeps in on stage and takes up a position reminiscent more of a tableau than a theatre performance in 2012. Her figure is so beautiful, and her moods as variable as the moods of the ocean, and she portrays Ellida with nervous hand movements and a somewhat trembling voice which many will recognise from her mother. It is not done with exaggerated theatricality, but the effect is inhibited by grand gestures and changes of costumes which insist that we find ourselves in 1888. There is something arch-British over lines such as "I´ve learnt to love my husband and that’s why it’s so awful", expressed with eyes rolled heavenwards, and the sexual undertones embedded in the longing for the infinity of the ocean seem definitely … stitched up. The Stranger’s reaction to Ellida’s final rejection, a hardly passionate "very well", is in the same style, and he is just as well-dressed as any English clerk.

The Rose Theatre
Joely Richardson is a beautiful and sad Ellida Wangel. Photo: Johan Persson, The Rose Theatre.

Malcolm Storrys Dr. Wangel is an impressive figure with an easy body language which suits how open he is about Ellida’s afflictions, their life together and the child they only had for a few months. Storry is a Wangel without bourgeois worries, but his idea of an idyllic family life in the country wavers somewhat when he medicinates his wife to the degree that the observant Bolette calls "odd" and he himself enjoys a cognac of a morning. Yet it is he who offers his wife "full freedom".

The Rose Theatre production takes a position to what they call Ibsen’s enigma from A Doll´s House: Is a happy marriage possible? Yes, but only under the right conditions, is their answer. But it is just as much the characters´ choices as their conditions which change and push the action forward. Dr. Wangel talks first about taking his wife to the open ocean at Skjoldviken, but Ellida´ decision to stay on in this place is what characterises the ending. A decision which Ellida confirms with a loud and quivering "yes". Hilde says beamingly that this is exactly what she wants, and Lyngstrand, too, is certain there are many good things waiting for him. But not far away lurks the Ibsenite irony: Lyngstrand is mortally ill and doesn’t have long to live. And when we meet Hilde again in The Master Builder, she has left Ellida and her father for good, for, as she says, "I had only a cage".

The Lady from the Sea at The Rose Theatre Kingston was performed from 28 February - 17 March 2012.
The production is registered in our Repertory Database here.

Translated by May-Brit Akerholt.