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FringeReview UK 2019

The Lady From the Sea

Norwegian Ibsen Company with The Print Room at The Coronet

Genre: Classical and Shakespeare, Dark Comedy, Drama, European Theatre, Experimental, International, Mainstream Theatre, Theatre, Translation

Venue: The Print Room at The Coronet, Notting Hill


Low Down

Director Marit Mourn Aune’s use of Mari Vatne Kjeldstadli’s English translation against the original Norwegian opens at the Print Room, with set and costumes by Estend Birkelend and Simon Bennison’s lighting. Nils Petter Molvaer produces an compositional envelope of music with a firm film basis. Till March 9th.


As the Print Room’s home at the Coronet gradually refurbishes itself, the sets expand in sand. Estend Birkelend’s is worlds away from the mid-America of the preceding De Lillo production. With the return of the new Norwegian Ibsen Company (last here briefly for Little Eyolf), the theatre too is fast coming of age. With Lars Norén’s Act and Terminal 3 last year, it’s clear Norwegians find The Print Room’s bleached aesthetic ideal. It feels a magical symbiosis. For one thing, where else would you find a production speaking part English, part Norwegian with delicate white surtitles? If this is Norway plus we could do with more of it.


Ibsen describes his 1888 The Lady From the Sea as a comedy, and it’s certainly his most life-affirming, redemptive work. Based on folk tales too, it evokes their vivid unreason.


The brilliance of Marit Mourn Aune’s production is in capturing – in Mari Vatne Kjeldstadli’s English translation – the rich rasp of Norwegian against English as a kind of private language, both intimate and distant at the same time. At moments of violent intensity it explodes from the main protagonists as if forced from them. At others it slips in like a private word, even joke. The infinite terracing of English against Norwegian, the choices made of which part to render English or original, is beguiling.


The rationale’s a little like the Elinor Cook version for the Donmar in 2017, Brits transposed to the Caribbean colliding with locals. That was ingenious. This has more truth still. Wangel and his daughters are British ex-pats mourning his long-dead wife with British bunting (occasioning inevitable laughter).


Wangel’s second marriage to the sea-obsessed, local Ellida has hit some rocks: not least the loss of their child and her sexual withdrawal. Both daughters want more from both. Precociously acerbic but vulnerable Hilde is needy in ways only Bolette guesses. Whilst Bolette herself yearns for travel and above all education. So the arrival of her old art teacher Arnholm, once in love with Ellida but wise enough to set his sights elsewhere, only heightens the tension Ellida and Bolette feel. This when Ellida tries to confide in Arnholm when wangle already has, then Wangel himself. Ellida’s certain she must respond to an old promise she made to a sailor; who as the most absurd member of the party – wannabe sculptor Lyngstrand – prophesies, might be near at hand. In comedy too, Ibsen reflects, everyone is right.


There’s a razor cuttlefish dryness to scrape the skyline and that’s what this production feels like. Birkelend’s set describes a scurfing semicircle of sand with the rear of a house, sliding doors that at one inset point provides a hot-tub of male bonding; at others vanishing points as people enter and exit the house. A fish-tank upstage left glows symbolically till Hilde hoiks out a goldfish. Simon Bennison’s lighting suggests blanched Nordic summer with little respite. Nils Petter Molvaer produces a compositional envelope of music with a firm film basis. It’s the one time modernity, rather than youth, comes knocking at the door.


It also reinforces the sea as surrounding, swallowing up possibilities as much as infinite horizons. Here you taste the fear that a ship’s silhouette might carry, like salt.


Marina Bye’s Bolette often trudges downstage, foregrounding the action. Wary and weary with premature resignation her performance starts vey understated indeed, yet builds into a power and resolution only Ellida can top. Whether acting as intermediary between her sister and Ellida as well as her father, or encountering two very different proposals in minutes, Bye’s Bolette appeals directly as a young woman who should – and will – strike out. She speaks as a mediator between her wrenched world and the clarity needed to see it whole.


Edward Ashley’s gawkishly hapless Lyngstrand – with his belief in women as mere vessels or muses, over the hill in a year or two – is a delight. Even if it’s his lungs that condemn him to be the one going over hills out of breath, his loafing hush-puppy colours take the sting out of a sentence he hasn’t heard; and there’s Hilde to be played by. It’s a thoroughly assured debut: Ashley twitches and flutters with just the right tic when putting his absurd case.


Kåre Conradi’s Arnholm has misunderstood the plea in his old friend’s letter, which wasn’t wide of the mark once. Conradi makes something far more of Arnholm than the shyly wise bumbling painter he often is. For en thing his exchanges with Ellida are terraced affairs of sudden Norwegian after polite English distractions have been disposed of. This Arnholm can’t contain his feelings during a game of bowls with Bolette when she responds startled. Here too Conradi and Bye’s exchanges allow an amplitude of self-discovery. Bye’s slow ecstasy of release, then fear, then fighting herself, seeing a way out, all register.


Molly Windsor’s alert, fragile Hilde provides ruthlessly funny comments with more tenderness than usual, in another fine stage debut. She’s far more than the comic adolescent with a savage streak she can be. She’s both scathing and scathed, Lyngstrand receiving both ministrations as Hilde starts fantasising how good she’ll look in black. The final scene with all three women reinforces a flickering renewal.


Ultimately the triangle convulses or the work fails. Adrian Rawlins’ Wangel carries an edge of awkward bluster an bonhomie just past where he should, missing the mark – till the denouement. Rawlins conveys a warm but professionally-obsessed man who’s never sounded his wife. Worse, he’s medicated her to numbness whilst knocking back cognac from a bottle himself; grief lies several histories deep here. At certain points we see the effects of this as the couple shiver each other apart. It’s not the inevitable fathoms of Ellida’s past, never confided, but Wangel’s lack of tuning in. Of the men, only Arnholm quickly adjusts. Wangel here though explodes before he can see. It’s the force of his then seeing that so impresses, the chemistry with Pia Tjelta’s Ellida.


Tjelta shimmers with distance and flinching enchantment. Distress at losing her son at a few months old is palpable, as is her medical husband’s clumsy attempts to obliterate by ministering drugs in a clumsy containment. No wonder Ellida’s prone to visions, and a need to escape his oppressiveness.


Ellida can be played with a kind of languishing terror. Not here. This is where the Norwegian strips back layers of what we think of in Ibsen much the way sea distresses paint from a beach-facing house. It’s an excoriating performance, tearing strips out of exchanges between herself and Arnholm and supremely Wangel and Oystein Reger’s Stranger. Whether pitching with dizziness and drugs early on, or stumbling into recognition, Tjelta is mesmerising. And when she makes her final decision, she’s radiant with self-knowledge.


Reger’s Stranger is a somewhat ungrateful part, quietly stomping fate down or up the auditorium. A kind of failed Flying Norwegian. But here again Norwegian and American English lend him a glinting quiddity, a sort of cubist mirage of a nemesis. Reger’s more violent, literally pushy Stranger remains a potent force. His containment though, his implacability, mark him out as a true catalyst despite his protestations: unchanged himself he leaves everyone realigned. This is Ibsen pared down to lines of power and revelation.


A groundbreaking production. Even outside its unique terms it’s outstanding.