The Lady From The Sea
The Courtyard Theatre, London
Not all plays have to be loud. This production of one of Ibsen's lesser known plays, The Lady From the Sea, is a poetically distanced affair and that's not a bad thing.
We follow Ellida, caged and restless housewife. As stepmother to two daughters who still celebrate their dead birth mother's birthday and in a strained relationship to a kindly but restrictive older husband, Ellida feels well neither within her reconstituted family nor within her marriage. A lover she turned down still haunts her as does the freedom she feels when looking at the sea.
The core of the play is Ellida's choice of whether to abandon her family and strike out for her own life or to stay bound by her relationships, which is a shame because the more interesting relationships and characters are the secondary ones. There's a compelling love triangle between Ellida's daughters and Lyngstrand, a tubercular dreamer.
Julia Korning as the younger, more spritely daughter is the most enjoyable character and actor on stage, and Paul Giles manages his character's narcissism well so that he seems just misguided rather than ugly when he says that he enjoys knowing that a women he won't marry will still think of him when he's gone. Nina Moniri as Ellida is a strong actress who communicates her character's inner turmoil with feeling, but never quite feels comfortable inside Ellida's skin.
Maybe because the realistic question at the heart of this play, how fair is it for a wife and mother to walk out, is simply done better by Ibsen elsewhere, this production sets out for a more mellow, poetic tone. There are fir trees in the auditorium that you can smell from your seats, and a bright cream light shines on the stage.
The stage is in-the-round so you can't look at what's on stage without being aware of the seats behind it, and while this can disconcertingly make what's on stage look like some kind of aquarium filled with 19th century fish, it also means you're not going to pretend that there's a fourth wall and you're peering into otherwise realistic lives.
Ellida's longing for an absent sea is compelling and gives the sense of some mystical other place which feeds back into the directing where the relationships between the characters are soft and slow, even when there's underlying social tension.
Still, this distancing means that when roars and shouts are needed, like the ending argument between Ellida and her husband, they come too late and feel a bit flat. And it's hard to forget that the most sensuous moment in the play is when Ellida and her estranged lover hold each other in their arms.
A solid, fun production which handles its tricky material with grace.
Reviewer: Tobias Chapple