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Manchester theatre reviews

The Lady From The Sea at Royal Exchange

A new version of Henrik Ibsen's passionate and sweeping drama by David Eldridge

Reviewed by Dave Porter October 2010

When the lighthouse keeper's daughter Ellida meets the widower Dr Wangel, she tries to put her long lost first love behind her and begin a new life as a wife and stepmother, but the tide is turning and an English ship is coming down the fjord and the undercurrents threaten to drag a whole family beneath the surface in this passionate and sweeping drama.


Described as "Anna Karenina meets The Piano".


Having read – or more likely misread – this play many years ago, I was expecting a dose of Nordic gloomy introspection from the later Ibsen. True, there is a smattering of it in this heavily symbolic play, the sense of foreboding rolling in like mist off the sea.


But then there are many comic moments, particularly in the first act, which almost makes it feel like you are watching a production of Chekhov. The summer garden parties of the buoyant middle class, the characters’ romantic entanglements and their silly but enjoyable misunderstandings, and the superfluous men all make you wonder if this is the same Ibsen who wrote Ghosts.


He does inject a feminist critique of the dependence of women upon men, but only as a side dish. His real concern is our ability to make free choices, the constraints of love versus duty, and whether secrets can rend or indeed mend a marriage.


Neve McIntosh as Ellida and Reece Dinsdale as Dr. Wangel  (photo by Jonathan Keenan)The lady from the sea is Ellida, married to small town doctor Dr Wangel (superbly played by Reece Dinsdale) and concealing a first love in the form of an American sailor who has promised one day to return. She feels herself an interloper in her own home, a virtual stranger to Wangel’s two daughters, and has shunned the marital bed for the past three years.


The arrival of a former tutor Arnholm (a deftly comic portrayal by Jonathan Keeble) to one of the girls, together with a young would-be artist who was on the same ship as the American, bring Ellida’s ghost returning with the tide. Ibsen presents her anguish at being forced to choose between her present life and an imagined one with the American as emblematic of all lives.


Therein lies the problem. Tennessee Williams once said that he could never write a play without feeling empathy for at least one of his characters, and in this play it is difficult to feel anything for any of them. Ellida’s quest for truth turns into a narcissistic desire for self-fulfilment which I overheard someone behind me saying would be better settled with a few Prozac. Cynical perhaps but not entirely untrue.


For all his innovations in the theatre, Ibsen here remains stubbornly wedded to melodrama with actors apparently leaving the stage only to allow others to come on, as if they were queuing for the toilet.


The acting in this production is first-rate and there are some standout performances from Dinsdale and Keeble But, ironically, for all efforts to put women centre stage, in this nautically-themed play Ibsen seems to have given them little ballast.

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