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A CurtainUp London London Review
The Lady From the Sea

We talked about storms. The weather. Calm seas. Dark nights . . . . oceans shining like silver plate. We talked about dolphins, whales, seals on the rocks blinking in the sun. . . terns, skuas, stormy petrels. It was so strange when he talked it was as if he was a part of them, was them.
-- Ellida
Natasha Richardson as Ellida
(Photo: Catherine Ashmore)
Opening the Almeida's and Michael Attenborough's exciting first season back in their home after extensive renovation is this lesser seen Ibsen play of 1888, The Lady From the Sea, directed by Trevor Nunn on his first engagement after relinquishing his post as Artistic Director of the National Theatre. Now New York based, Natasha Richardson takes the lead role of the ethereal Ellida in something of a family tradition. Her mother Vanessa Redgrave played both Bolette and Ellida in English productions a generation ago.

Pam Gems is known for her own plays, Stanley about the artist Stanley Spencer and those about Edith Piaf and Marlene Dietrich, but she has also adapted plays by Chekhov, Ibsen and Lorca. Her new version seems to bring out a resonance for today's generation of women as Ellida decides which man she wishes to live with. Whether to embrace the values of the land, solidity and reliability or those of the sea, mystery and fluidity? Should her husband insist she honours her marriage vows or give her the freedom to choose?

Ellida (Natasha Richardson) is the beautiful second wife of Dr Wangle (John Bowe) who has two daughters from his previous marriage, Bolette (Claudie Blakley) and Hilde (Louisa Clein). Ellida grew up in a lighthouse and seems to have more affinity with the water than the land. Arnholm (Tim McInerny) is a past suitor of Ellida and is asked by Dr Wangel to visit because he is concerned about Ellida. Lyngstrand (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a talentless sculptor who is dying of consumption. Ellida is haunted by the memory of a sailor she knew years ago to whom she was promised. The sailor's return throws her marriage of economic convenience into question.

The Lady From the Sea is a play full of atmosphere and Trevor Nunn's richly textured production evokes the Norwegian seascape and mystique. Rob Howell's brilliant dark, swirling green/grey set with its green gravel a foot reflects the imagery of Ibsen's play. Lighting and the deep tones of a sonorous 'cello complete the picture. The pivoting, revolving set is used to introduce curved railings and rake the stage more steeply for the scene in the mountains. At one point they all lean on the railings and look out at the wondrous scenery which is their audience.

Aside from the sexuality of the sea imagery, Ibsen's play deals with marriage prospects for the women in a remote community where there are too few opportunities. Ellida has chosen security over romance and we see this predicted for both her step-daughters: Bolette to the much older Arnholm and Hilde to a life of neither money nor future with the dying Lyngstrand. Ellida's marriage is not succeeding. The household is effectively run by Bolette, Hilde is lacking maternal affection and Ellida and Wangel have ceased sexual relations.

It is a very elusive role for the lead actress, this watery creature, part Mermaid, part woman. Ibsen's original title for the play was The Mermaid. Natasha Richardson puts her hand up to her face in a gesture so like her mother and talks behind her hand in moments of sheer emotion. With her long blonde hair and delicate physique she looks the part. Claudie Blakley delivers a confident performance as the eldest daughter, the girl who tries to defend her stepmother to Hilde (Louisa Clein), again a very sound performance as the young girl who can be childish and frivolous. Nunn directs her so that her behaviour never seems to be an adult aping a child. John Bowe as Wangel is solid and kind, Arnholm (Tim McInnerny) is concerned, Lyngstrand (Benedict Cumberbatch) is an appropriately pale, sad figure. Eoin McCarthy has a darkly gruff insistence as the Stranger, demanding that Ellida leaves with him. Geoffrey Hutchings as the resident artist, Ballested, serves to introduce characters, as his painting of the mermaid sets the scene.

A word about the renovated Almeida. The space we love is still there, the auditorium seems essentially unchanged, as intimate as before but much more comfortable. The front of house area, once an open courtyard, is enclosed with glass, spacious, light and airy and although there is less seating in the bar area, it feels modern without losing the character of the old theatre. I expect that behind the scenes is a better place to work with more dressing rooms created by excavating under the stalls. The stage has a wonderful revolving turntable with pivot facilitating endless interesting directorial possibilities. This is a sensitive renovation to please theatre goers and theatre workers alike.

The Lady From the Sea
Written by Henrik Ibsen
Translated by Pam Gems
Directed by Trevor Nunn

Starring: Natasha Richardson
With: Claudie Blakley, John Bowe, Louisa Clein, Benedict Cumberbatch, Geoffrey Hutchings, Eoin McCarthy,Tim McInnerny
Designer: Rob Howell
Lighting Designer: Hugh Vanstone
Sound: John Leonard
Music: Shaun Davey
Running time: Two hours thirty minutes with one interval .
Box Office: 020 7359 4404
Booking to 28th June 2003
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 16th May 2003 performance at the Almeida Theatre, Almeida Street, London N1 (Tube Station: Angel)

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