The Almeida’s new season finally kicks off in its recently refurbished theatre in Islington after a two-year closure. The season also has Trevor Nunn directing his first play after handing over the reigns of Artistic Director at the National Theatre to Nicholas Hytner. Thus this is a production heavily laden with expectation and there was a buzz of anticipative voices as the audience settled into their seats.
Ibsen’s “The Lady From the Sea” opens with Ballested (Geoffrey Hutchings) painting a picture of a mermaid dying beside a Norwegian fjord, which is a fitting metaphor for the plays leading character Ellida, the elusive beautiful second wife of Dr Wangel. Ellida once swam in the wide-open ocean, but now she is limited to the small fjord which she describes as ‘stagnant and poisonous to the blood”.
Ellida had ‘chosen’ to marry Wangel in order to obtain financial security. As a consequence she moved from her beloved coastal town next to the enthralling ocean with which she feels great affinity. Ellida perceives herself as being trapped in her new life; did she really choose this marriage or was she forced into it for economic reasons? Her hopes of happiness in her new life have expired, just as her child died within a few months of his birth.
Wangel’s two grown up daughters from his first marriage remain distrustful of Ellida, especially the youngest Hilde. The two daughters continue to remember their dead mother’s birthday by little rituals, such as decorating the house with flowers, but deliberately exclude Ellida from these tokens of family intimacy.
Ellida escapes by obsession on a seagoing stranger with whom she once swore undying love. She longs for the freedom that this stranger could offer her: the freedom to make different choices than the ones that life has apparently forced upon her. One day the stranger returns and Ellida is able to obtain the freedom she has been yearning for. What will she choose?
Natasha Richardson plays the role of Ellida with fierce passion. She physically conveys the anguish of never knowing what life could have been, of what one would choose if one was free to do so. Her whole body shakes with emotion and her eyes burn with frustration and express horror and desolation at the pain she is inflicting upon herself and others. When Ellida decides to fight for her freedom to choose, Richardson hurtles her body about the stage and throws herself upon her husband in waves of defiance only for them to ebb away as she too begins to fear for her sanity.
John Bowe’s Wangel is gentle but determined to fight for his wife’s affections; however as his concerns grow for his wife’s mental stability he finally relents and his body visibly sighs as he removes the wedding ring from her finger.
Claudie Blakley gives a beautiful performance as Bolette the eldest daughter who, like her stepmother, also feels stifled within the small town. Blakley expresses the crux of this play about women’s financial freedom, or the lack of it, in the way she responds to the young Lyngstrand’s (Benedict Cumberbatch) courtship. As Lyngstrand articulates the role of women in marriage and how they are fulfilled by melding themselves to their husband’s wishes and are elevated by becoming like their husband, Blakley disarmingly asks, “Why should a woman choose to do that?”
Bolette agrees to marry her tutor Arnholm (Tim McInnerny) in order to escape the small Norwegian town, what makes this scene particularly poignant is the fact that Claudie Blakley makes us fully aware that Bolette has no freedom with which to make this choice.
A beautiful beguiling production!
What other critics had to say.....
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says,"Natasha [Richardson] is a woman possessed of passion, mystery and charisma." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "Richardson's stunning portrayal of a troubled woman.." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "Nunn’s subtle, intelligent direction gets much from his supporting cast." PAUL TAYLOR for THE INDEPENDENT says, "Absorbing and poetic production."
External links to full reviews from popular press