The Lady From the Sea

Henrik Ibsen in a new version by Frank McGuinness
Arcola Theatre

Photo of Lia Williams as Ellida Wangel

Ibsen really knew how to write parts for women. Ellida Wangel is yet another great showcase, being something of a cross between the passionate, unstable Hedda Gabler and the wilful, feminist Nora Helmer (from A Doll's House).

Young director Hannah Eidinow uses many of the same actors as Mehmet Ergen did for Enemy of the People, with Lia Williams added in the title role and Greg Hicks replaced.

In a most unusual staging by Jason Southgate, they play in an attractive, symbolic triangle made up of arbour, house and art area, with the audience filling the three gaps between.

The red-headed Ellida is a lady with a past but that seems to be behind her now that she enjoys a stable marriage with the relatively dull, much older Doctor Wangel, played far better by Jonathan Hackett when calm than irate or beseeching.

There is no doubt that he loves and wants the best for her, as do his two daughters from an earlier marriage, Hilde and Bolette. The girls are growing and beginning to think of their own long-term plans, as are almost all of the men who visit.

Sean Campion is very natural as Arnholm, the ageing former tutor who was once almost affianced to Ellida and now has set his heart on marriage to Alison McKenna's Bolette.

Lyngstrand, played by Chris Moran, is a real oddity, looking like the kind of buffoon who populates Wodehouse novels rather than Ibsen. Terminally ill, he seems happy enough to get any girl, even the teenaged Hilde, given real pep, not to mention seductive allure, by Fiona O'Shaughnessy.

The heart of this play, though, is their stepmother, whose unhappiness is beautifully portrayed by Miss Williams, hands constantly wringing each other or desperately plucking at her dress. She is haunted by a ghost from the past and seeks solace in the sea and its wildness.

It is from that source too, that the need to make a choice for her future, stability or passion, emerges in the form of a stranger, Chris Obi who was previously joined with her in a most unconventional way.

The final scene is like some tug of war, with Ellida in the middle, and a most unexpected outcome. Frank McGuinness uses slangy modern language to tell a tale that could as easily have been written today as a century ago and, thanks to Lia Williams as well as her Irish colleagues, the Arcola should have another success on its hands.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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