What can be said with Ibsen’s plays that hasn’t already been said? It was a question I had asked myself before visiting the Arcola to see this, the second production in their short Ibsen season, but happily, after watching this new translation of The Lady From The Sea with its innovative minimalist staging, I found there was plenty left to say.
Set in Northern Norway at the end of the nineteenth century, the play tells the story of Ellida (Lia Williams), trapped in a marriage that ties her to a ‘ready made’ family and stifles her freedom. We learn that years before, she ‘married’ (through a sea ceremony, not legally) a sailor calling himself Friman. She soon ended the affair, but since his death three years ago has been haunted by his memory and driven by her longing for the sea. These come to a head in the play when a ‘stranger’ appears, inviting her to set sail with him and restore what he describes as her true marriage.
Ibsen’s play is grounded in the Nordic myths of farmers who steal ‘selkies’ (seal women) as their wives, turning them into women. Their longing for the sea, however, remains too great and one day they escape back to the ‘country-under-wave’. The Lady thus spans the realms of nature, society and fairytale (or dream) like many Nordic and Teutonic myths, such as the Ring of the Nibelung. But whilst obvious journeys are always made in The Ring from one realm to another, in The Lady the boundaries between each remain unclear. The story frequently crosses realms within the space of a few lines, and there is no definitive statement that nature is good, and society bad.
Though apparent in the original, this frequent flitting was enhanced by Frank McGuiness’s translation which not only gave the play a fresh feel, but in actually heightening the ironies, brought out new points. This gave the actors much to work with, allowing us to see, for example, Hilde’s (Ellida’s step-daughter, played by Fiona O’Shaughnessy) dual desire to shut out her step-mother, whilst also longing to be loved by her. The intense scenes created through these emotions could at any stage be transformed through the entrance of another character such as Lyngstrand, Hilde’s would-be suitor (Chris Moran). With his airs and graces, he always pulled the scene back into the realm of society which was, in itself, ironic, given that his own dreams of becoming a sculptor saw him craving fairytale perfection.
The minimalist set, designed by Jason Southgate, was highly effective. Consisting of just a few props, on one corner of its triangular form stood rocks to signify the sea and nature. On another lay the trimmings of the house, grounded in society. Between these on the third corner were two benches forming a veranda. Here Ellida would sit, showing how she was both technically part of the house and markedly detached from it. Again, however, the distinction between the realms was blurred by the stranger appearing from the corner with the house, etching the dream onto society.
All this said, the production was not foot perfect. With her sensitive portrayal of longing and apparent madness, Williams as Ellida stole the show. That no-one else quite matched her, however, was not always a good thing. When she told her husband, Dr. Wangel (Jonathan Hackett) about her past, Wangel appeared to exist purely as a springboard to enable Ellida’s character to be furthered. We hardly experienced the interaction of two points of view, and this had an unintended and rather perverse result. I found that I wasn’t awestruck by the intensity of Ellida’s longing for the sea. Rather, I wondered at why she should have any reason for wishing to stay in society, and wasn’t taking the plunge immediately.
But the ensemble grew in strength over the second half, preparing the audience well for the final twists. On the verge (we imagine) of following the stranger to the sea, Ellida decides to remain with her husband when he releases her from their marriage bonds. In discovering that her new-found freedom enables her to choose to stay, Ellida reveals that land and sea do not embody stability and freedom respectively, but are merely metaphors for these, so that freedom can be found on the land.
Thus in the final scene, Ibsen challenges everything we thought we had understood from the play, and he doesn’t leave it there. Prior to this, Wengel has already admitted their marriage was a mistake, when urging Ellida not to make another by going with the stranger. So we are left questioning whether Ellida really has found freedom, or simply learnt to adapt to the only sensible course.
We also see history repeating itself with her elder step-daughter, Bolette (Alison McKenna), pledging herself to the much older Arnholm (Sean Campion) purely because he promises her opportunities. Will she too long for freedom in subsequent years, or learn to adapt? It is impossible to say, but it is precisely these ambivalent conclusions, resting with Ibsen but brought out by McGuiness, that make both the play and production so intriguing.