The Lady from the Sea

Henrik Ibsen, adapted by David Eldridge
Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester
(2010)

The Lady from the Sea production photo

Ibsen's The Lady From The Sea was written in 1888 after many of his most-often produced plays but before Hedda Gabler, The Master Builder and a few others. Sarah Frankcom directs a brand new translation of the play adapted by playwright David Eldridge.

The lady from the sea is Ellida Wangel who lives in a small, remote town by a fjord in northern Norway with her husband Doctor Wangel and his two grown-up daughters Bollette and Hilde. Ellida takes no interest in her stepdaughters or the house and seems haunted by something and drawn to the sea, until she reveals to her husband that, before she married him, she promised herself to a mysterious and scary man on a ship who later ignored her letters saying she was married to someone else. She believes that he will come back for her.

Ellida's mental state has estranged her from her husband and caused her stepdaughters to resent her. The arrival of Lyngstrand, who is more ill than he will acknowledge and has a selfish and clichéd view of how an artist should live, lightens the mood a little, especially for Hilde who has a dark fascination for his imminent death. Ellida's fears, however, are realised when the man does come for her, but he lets her decide whether to leave with him or stay with her husband.

Ibsen said that after A Doll's House depicted a woman leaving her husband, he had to write Ghosts which showed a woman who stayed to her cost; in a sense this play offers a third strand in which a wife fights for her right to choose whether to stay or go in a society where the husband has the power to decide everything for her. The message (or one of them in a richly-layered piece of theatre) is that it is hard to grant freedom to someone to make their own decisions in case they decide to go their own way, but it is also possible that by granting them freedom you will bind them closer to you.

Writer David Eldridge has produced a tight adaptation that feels fresh and modern without being at all modernised. The setting and the politics are very definitely those of 1880s Europe, but the characters and the relationships come across as absolutely believable in any time. Director Sarah Frankcom places characters in Liz Ascroft's very spare but effective set with painterly precision but still keeps everything believable.

Neve McIntosh has created a wonderfully-rounded character as Ellida, with moments of distraction and mental anguish never seeming to conflict or jar with the times when she is able to interact happily and sociably with family and guests. She has some quite complex dialogue that trips off her tongue very naturally, and her soft Scottish accent and celtic appearance help to give her that aura of an uncomfortable outsider.

She gets good support from Reece Dinsdale as her husband who is desperate not to lose her but can see her slipping away. Another very natural performance comes from Jonathan Keeble as Arnholm, a family friend and former tutor to the girls, who gets plenty of humour out of the role, as do Samuel Collings as a wonderfully entertaining if frustratingly selfish Lyngstrand and Paul Kemp who is very funny as former actor and the town's painter, decorator, barber and dancing master Ballested. Sara Vickers is very good as elder daughter Bolette, and Catrin Stewart positive revels in Hilde's very dark inquisitiveness and lack of any social restraint to great comic effect. Bill Ward makes the man only known as The Stranger mysterious and a little scary.

The play is loaded with symbols and cross-references between art and real events and has a mysterious, magical atmosphere with implications of the mythical without taking any of the actual events we see out of the realm of naturalism. There is also a great deal of humour as well as beautifully-drawn characters and plenty of ideas about freedom and relationships to ponder on afterwards.

Eldridge's adaptation and the Royal Exchange's production have brought to life one of Ibsen's lesser-performed works and shown it as a great piece of drama that is well worth a trip into Manchester to see.

Running until 6 November

Reviewer: David Chadderton