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Saturday, 16 October 2010

Theatre - The Lady From the Sea - Royal Exchange

Star rating – 8/10

Henrik Ibsen certainly had very forward thinking views about free will, the position of women, and marriage, as expressed in his 1888 play, ‘The Lady From the Sea’, which has now been adapted to great effect by David Eldridge.

It is the story of Ellida, who grew up in a lighthouse and developed a deep and binding love for, and connection with, the sea. She is now married to a doctor, Wangel, and lives far away from the ocean in a small town by the fjords. He has two daughters by his first marriage, his first wife having died before he remarried the young and fragile Ellida.

From the moment that Ellida takes to the stage, and there are not many moments of the play when she does not occupy its centre, Neve McIntosh portrays her fragility, and strangeness with incredible accuracy and emotion. She is dreamlike in her speech and actions. Her husband is so concerned for her mental health that he asks a specialist and former tutor of his daughters to come to visit to give his opinion. The problem is that the former tutor, Arnholm, is sure that Wangel has really asked him there to propose to his elder daughter Bolette. Cue predictable mixed messages – but the outcome is not quite so predictable.

Ellida’s melancholy takes a very dramatic turn when she firstly reveals to her husband the nature of a bond she had to a sailor before she met him, and then rises to a crescendo when the same sailor turns up to claim her and take her back to the sea. The key to the outcome of the drama is the recognition that human beings can only really make a valid choice when they are given the free will to do so.

The other stand out part in the play for me is the younger Wangel daughter, Hilde, played wonderfully by Catrin Stewart. Hilde is a total drama queen, starved of affection following the death of her mother, and imagining dramatic scenarios that she feels would be simply splendid, such as being a young beautiful widow in black crepe. She is funny and candid, too candid for her family at times, but adds a touch of welcome light to the dark shades of her stepmother’s dilemma.

This is a fabulous drama, with more than a touch of Anna Karenina in the situation Ellida finds herself in, but Wangel is no Karenin. He is able to put personal desires aside out of respect for her and her needs, an unusual thing for a husband to do for a wife, particularly given the time the play was written in. This a wonderful play that makes great use of lighting rather than relying on too many props and scene changes to get its message across to the enraptured audience, with a sparkling central performance from Neve McIntosh.

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