The cast, distractingly poorly costumed and in a cheap set, are noticeably youthful from the off. Ibsen’s play, The Lady from the Sea, is a ponderous one, and I feel that its dramatic success relies upon a pervasive atmosphere of mystery. In it, Ellida, the second wife of Dr Wangel and stepmother to his two children, feels a restless longing for the sea that is answered by the strange sailor who mysteriously comes to claim her. For this late nineteenth-century play, many productions would invest heavily in a stunningly evocative set; without this luxury, superb individual performances could still help Fringe productions pull off astonishingly professional stuff.
Married with unmistakeably amateur acting, Benjamin Blyth’s production failed to create the crucial atmospheric intrigue. Performers telegraphed every thought process and reaction with excessive emphasis as if they were playing on a huge, ornate stage, not in the round at the intimate Courtyard Theatre, where audiences are receptive to every flickering eyelid. Nina Moniri’s shaking as Ellida, Pip Gladwin’s stuttering as Ballested, and Julia Korning’s very audible stomping across stage as Hilde, are only three examples where ostentation was employed instead of subtlety. Combine this with a whole myriad of different accents, forgotten lines and stumbling, stilted conversations that made plot progression too slow, and a lack of attention to detail (for example, the girls didn’t sit in formal ladylike positions but sat casually with their feet apart), and the performances feel distractingly unprofessional.
Most of the relationships lacked believability, something that was brought into sharp focus when the text highlighted supposedly given facts, such as the idea that Boletta (Dominique Bull) didn’t like her stepmother Ellida (Moniri), or that Hilde (Korning) worshipped her. Most unconvincing was the emotional journey that Dr Wangel, played by Glenn Speers, takes when the love of his life, Ellida, refutes everything that he has known for the past three years, and see-saws back and forwards between life changing decisions. Paul Giles provided some welcome relief as the artist in residence, Lyngstrand, somehow managing to negotiate his character’s absurd and selfish outlook on life with an endearing performance. Dr Wangel’s two daughters, the brattish and mischievous Hilde and the more insipid Boletta (Bull), gave quite consistent characterful performances and worked nicely together, conveying a sisterly playfulness that rang true, though their work with others was less conclusively strong. As the central character Ellida, much hinged on Moniri, whose praiseworthy ability to fill her eyes with tears at frequent intervals and moments of passionate outspokenness weren’t quite enough to give her the dramatic gravitas that would set her apart from the rest of the cast.
Without sufficiently strong individual and team work from the cast, emotional engagement from the audience is limited, and as the second half progressed it became even more evident that I didn’t care about any of them at all. The arrival of the stranger puts the final anti-climactic nail in the coffin; although I recognise it is hard to achieve mystery, more use of music and lighting could have at least have suggested an attempt to create some.
The Lady from the Sea is playing at The Courtyard Theatre until 20 January 2013. For more information and tickets please see The Courtyard Theatre website