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The Lady From the Sea

Joely Richardson follows in her family's footsteps as the heroine of Ibsen's mysterious play. logo
Joely Richardson in
The Lady From the Sea
(© Johan Persson)
There's a pleasing sense of continuity in Stephen Unwin's production of Henrik Ibsen's The Lady From the Sea at the Rose Theatre, as Joely Richardson, as the enigmatic Ellida Wangel, is playing a role that was previously performed by both her mother, Vanessa Redgrave, and her late sister, Natasha.

But while there's clearly a lot at stake emotionally, Richardson is hindered by a production that is at best proficient and often rather pedestrian, instead of mythic. As the beautiful and much younger second wife of the respectable but dull Dr Wangel (Malcolm Storry), Richardson has a suitably otherworldly beauty, with her elegant, willowy and almost white blonde hair.

Unfortunately, she appears fidgety and fluttery rather than torn by forces beyond her control. She takes the character's inner restlessness and makes it external, pacing, twisting, long fingers flying to her face.

Interestingly, the most compelling scenes are those in which Richardson isn't featured. Madeline Worrall is incredibly touching as Wangel's intelligent and homely daughter, Bolette, who reluctantly comes to realize that an attachment to her debonair but aging tutor, Arnholm (played with warmth and charm by Richard Dillane) is her only means of escape from the quiet, restrictive town in which they live.

Sam Crane also gives a moving and poignant performance as the delicate but blithely good-humoured, if rather pompous, Lingstrand, the young would-be artist who is clearly unlikely to recover from his little "weakness" of the chest. The puppyish manner in which he chases after Wangel's younger daughter, the brittle and cruel Hilde (Alexandra Moen), is quite wrenching to watch.

Despite intermittent moments of intensity, the pacing is often slow, the translation seems too pared down, and the emotional landscape curiously flat. As a result, Ellida's sense of torment is only fitfully conveyed. There is little sense of her connection and attraction to Gudmundur Thorvaldsson's returning sailor, and Ellida's choice to stay with her husband -- to abandon her ties to her past and finally become a wife and mother -- is made of her "own free will."

Inddeed, like Simon Higlett's set -- a sweeping curl of sun-bleached decking -- the production is elegant, but lacks mystery and turbulence. The churning of the waves and the lure of deep, dark currents are things spoken of, but never fully evoked.

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