Ellida Wangel is beautiful, married and alone. Her doctor-husband loves her dearly – he worries about her and her moods; she is ill and he believes he can cure her. Ellida’s stepdaughters celebrate their deceased mother’s birthday, everything seems exactly as it always has been, and they wonder about their future, living in this remote isolated place. Every day, when she can, Ellida swims, causing the villagers to talk of her amongst themselves as “the lady from the sea”.
The Rose Theatre’s current production of Ibsen’s The Lady from the Sea is a new version by Stephen Unwin, who also directs. It is one of Ibsen’s later works and uses the Scandinavian folk tale of a sea-woman who comes on to land, falls in love and takes human form. When the time comes, she cannot return to her old sea-shape, changed as she is. Disney fans – and Hans Christian Andersen fans – may well recognise the story.
Ellida, the play’s central character, is complicated in the best tradition of Ibsen’s women. Those closest to her do not know her but likewise, she does not know herself. Now in her middle age, she reaches a crisis point – she does not recognise the life she has built and, with the arrival of The Stranger, she has a chance to change her future. The Stranger, who she met by the sea and because of the sea and who, now, will whisk her away on the sea, wants her to come of “her own free will”. As in the Chaucerian tale of Sir Gawain and the Loathly Lady, free will is a crucial point; here Ibsen asks the question, what do women want? Ellida is a wonderful and difficult role. Joely Richardson looks the part without question, but she seems to fall a little short in conveying the desperation of this complicated woman; there is a fine line to tread between the mannerisms of the character and appearing mannered.
It is unusual – in my experience of Ibsen at least – to find so much comedy. The audience at the Rose laughed often, especially at parts dealing with women’s and men’s roles in marriage. Sam Crane as Hans Lyngstrand took the laughter in his stride – he could easily have chosen to exaggerate the self-obsessed artist, but instead never wavered in pitch or consistency. Equally Madeleine Worrall as Bolette was both as sensible as the elder daughter in a motherless family must be, and as ambitious as an intelligent and curious woman ought to be – which only makes it all the more heartbreaking when she, like her stepmother, accepts a marriage offer like a contract of exchange: I will marry you because you offer me a way out of here, and because you promise to show me the world and give me the chance to learn what I, as a woman alone, never can.
Simon Higlett’s set design is simple but flexible; an atmospheric seascape cyclorama circles the upstage edge and the wooden decking floor (only slightly reminiscent of Ikea) lifts out to reveal a pond. We move outside to inside, from house to mountainside swiftly and elegantly. Likewise, Mark Bouman’s costumes sit perfectly in keeping with each character – Doctor Wangel’s (Malcolm Storry) rumpled jacket and waistcoat, ethereal sea-obsessed Ellida’s long gowns in blues and purples, the practical and intelligent Bolette’s sensible blouse and skirt – and with the production’s aesthetic.
The Lady from the Sea is chock-a-block with the symbolism of folk tradition and mythology, seen in the central motif of the mutability of water, the constant comparison of Ellida with the sea and the pivotal point that is the sailing of the last ship of the season. Will Ellida set sail? Or can she resolve her inner turmoil and face the future in peace? It is a psychologically driven play that discusses the human desire to achieve a state of self-realisation and demonstrates how speaking the truth can destroy you – but how it can also set you free.
The Lady From The Sea is playing until 17 March. For more information and tickets, see the Rose Theatre Kingston’s website.