Pia Tjelta & Adrian Rawlins
The Lady From the Sea by Henrik Ibsen – Print Room at the Coronet, London
The Norwegian Ibsen Company has struck up a relationship with the Print Room, presenting their second show following last year’s Little Eyolf at the gorgeous Coronet Theatre in Notting Hill. The company sounds long-established but, in fact, was set up recently to fill a Royal Shakespeare Company-shaped gap in Norwegian culture. There is no arguing with more Ibsen on our stages: his plays combine dark folklore and poetry with a questioning of basic social assumptions that remains nagglingly current a century later. The Lady from the Sea, rarely performed in the UK, is a fascinating and alluring play, but this production provides an uneven account.
We are used to European companies with distinctive styles, but The Lady From the Sea lacks a defining directorial grip. The main characteristic of Marit Moum Aune’s bi-lingual production, which features an Anglo-Norwegian version of the central family, is awkwardness. Wangel doesn’t know why his wife won’t sleep with him; Arnholm thinks his old pupil carries a torch; Bolette finds her old teacher’s attentions excruciating; Lyngstrand won’t admit he’s dying; and Hilde thinks her step-mother doesn’t love her. Meanwhile, Ellida is on pills and haunted by the call of the sea, and a darkly mythic secret. It’s a masterful picture of thwarted ambition tied up by unequal relationships, but the production – set on a beach overlooking the fjord where tourist ships come and go , leaving the inhabitants stranded – has an uneven cast, who lack the strong ensemble dynamic essential to the flow of the play.
The best performances come from Pia Tjelta as Ellida, Adrian Rawlins as Wangel, her struggling husband, and company founder Kåre Conradi (looking, coincidentally, very like his RSC counterpart, Greg Doran) as the increasingly manipulative figure of Arnholm. Tjelta’s performance is alive and real rather than otherwordly, so her inability to resist the baleful influence of a mysterious seaman is a real shock. When she slips into subtitled Norwegian, which she does when talking of the sea, the production really catches light as an energy courses through her. Rawlins plays Wangel, her long-suffering but controlling husband, as dishevelled, good hearted, and wrestling with himself, his demons and her impossible longing to return to the unattainable sea, other world of a life with The Stranger. Conradi is benign and white-suited, a middle aged man who gradually realises he has the power he needs over Bolette to get what he wants, and force her into marriage.
The Lady From the Sea confronts the need for liberation and mutual respect within marriage, the only way to achieve true freedom. Wangel makes a supreme effort to let Ellida go, and finds he has won her back by doing so. It is therefore ironic that his young daughter Bolette should meanwhile be compromising her own freedom, believing she can is escaping the constraints of her life while imprisoning herself in a union she does not want. The production suggests that, pulling away from Arnholm at the end, she may realise her mistake, but it is very like Ibsen to avoid a clear-cut resolution. We may free ourselves when men can accept the equal agency of women, but desire for the impossible will always be there, the belief that a different and better version of our lives calling to us from somewhere out to sea.