Sign up for our weekly newsletter

The Lady From the Sea

Henrik Ibsen, adapted by Mike Poulton
Birmingham Rep
(2008)

The sea is said to have a particular fascination for Norwegians. Even though Norway-born Ibsen spent much of his life away from his homeland, he felt compelled to return when he was in his 60s and many of his nautical experiences are brought together in The Lady From The Sea.

"People in Norway are spiritually under the domination of the sea," he once remarked. "I do not believe other people can fully understand this."

In The Lady From The Sea Ibsen tries to explain how the sea can have so much power over certain people. He analyses how the unconscious manipulates the mind to such an extent that a human being can act determinedly and forcefully without understanding his or her behavioural pattern.

It was ground-breaking and somewhat perplexing in Ibsen's time. Today it resonates with relevance which makes you wonder why The Lady From The Sea is so rarely performed.

The play traces the story of Ellida, a woman whose life is comfortable and fairly mundane after marrying respectable Dr Wengel. But she's constantly drawn to the sea and has to choose whether to stay with her husband or follow a stranger from her past to whom she seems irresistibly drawn.

Claire Price is astonishingly good as Ellida. She gives a magnificent performance as the doctor's new spouse who is unable to settle fully into the marriage for two reasons: she feels the spectre of his first wife is still in their home; and she can't get the stranger out of her mind.

She agonizes with pain, guilt, fear and self-condemnation as she begs to be allowed her freedom - something her illiberal husband can't give her. It drives her deeper within herself because she feels claustrophobic within the relationship.

Louis Hilyer is a fine Dr Wangel, giving a steady portrayal of the esteemed professional man who tries to remain calm as he puts up with so much irrational behaviour from his wife. He grows visibly towards the end when he makes the life-changing decision on which the play turns.

There are excellent contributions also from Hannah Young as Wangel's level-headed daughter Boletta; Amy McAllister as her feisty younger sister Hilde; Tom Vaughan-Lawlor as Lyngstrand, the sexist, immodest, would-be sculptor who gets most of the funny lines in Mike Poulton's absorbing script; and Simon Scardifield as Dr Arnholm, the romantic who seems to fall for most members of the opposite sex.

Lucy Bailey directs with panache, extracting tension and emotion in waves from her cast. However, she admitted in the programme that she thought long and hard about how to present The Stranger and I didn't think Oliver Boot was enigmatic or mesmerizing enough for someone who was supposed to have an inescapable hold on Ellida.

Mike Britton's two-tier design is stunning, with the Wangel house emblazoned both front and back with flowers and reflective surfaces which create an illusion of water everywhere. Part of the set sometimes moves subtly towards the back of the stage to reveal more of the garden; unfortunately on the final occasion it was accompanied by a creaking sound which might well have put off a less accomplished cast.

In Lucy Bailey's hands The Lady From The Sea is hauntingly appealing. And on this performance Claire Price will soon be mentioned in the same breath as some of the theatrical greats with whom she's shared a stage.

"The Lady From The Sea" runs until March 29th

Reviewer: Steve Orme