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The Lady from the Sea by Ibsen at Manchester Royal Exchange Theatre

Published by: Caroline May on 19th Oct 2010 | View all blogs by Caroline May


In spite of the Royal Exchange still basking in the glory of its 1978 success with The Lady from the Sea which starred Vanessa Redgrave and transferred to London, I gained the impression on the opening night of this new production that hardly any of the audience (including me) actually knew the play. 

Naturally we were anticipating the usual Ibsen-esque scenarios of gloomy Scandinavian settings, plenty of middle-class angst, a doomed dysfunctional family, and a well flagged-up tragic ending. 

Well, our expectations were utterly confounded by a work which is partly a laugh-out-loud comedy of manners, and partly a modernised legend whose supernatural themes are almost operatic in their emotional intensity.

At first this seems to be the story of an unhappy second marriage between the tipsy Dr Wangel (Reece Dinsdale) and a glamorous woman barely older than his own daughters.  But his new wife Ellida appears to be a mythic figure, like The Little Mermaid or Rusalka, who has been torn from her home, the sea, and struggles to cope with confinement on dry land.  As if that weren’t enough she is haunted by a menacing and mysterious figure from her past, a shape-shifting sailor (Bill Ward) to whom she once pledged herself and who has vowed to return for her.  Neve McIntosh cuts an appropriately romantic figure as the doomed Ellida, and her sense of frustration and claustrophobia are tangible as Wangel tries to pathologise the evil spell that has been cast over her.

It is a thing of wonder how Ibsen manages to graft a tragic myth onto a situation comedy and make it work.  At times it’s like watching a parody of his greatest hits, as themes from A Doll’s House, The Wild Duck, Hedda Gabler and Ghosts are all subverted to comic effect.  The talented local artist Ballested (a beautifully judged cameo by Paul Kemp) is revealed to be a struggling painter and decorator; lucky young Lyngstrand (played as delightfully deluded by Samuel Collings) has about as much good fortune as a human albatross; the pretty child Hilde (subtle Catrin Stewart) is a morbid and nasty prototype goth; and her sister’s romantic former tutor Arnholm (Royal Exchange stalwart Jonathan Keeble bravely playing against type) is a ridiculous, balding middle-aged man. 

Liz Ashcroft’s elegant, sparse design allows the drama to unfold swiftly.  The bleached bare floorboards and handful of empty-framed props are stylish and well-suited to this in-the-round space - something as simple as the gutted carcase of a rowing boat moving through Jack James’s watery video projection creates an astonishing effect which is well in keeping with the metaphorical nature of the play.

Although David Eldridge’s version of a literal translation makes the dialogue often sound clunky and awkward, Sarah Frankcom’s pacy production has the audience on the edge of its seats.  Don’t wait another 32 years to see this fantastic and fascinating play in Manchester.

The Lady from the Sea is on until Saturday 6 November 2010

Prices: £9-£30

Evenings: Mon-Fri @ 7.30, Sat @ 8pm [no performance Tues 26 Oct]

Matinees: Wed @ 2.30pm, Sat @ 4pm and Tues 26 Oct @ 2.30pm

Box Office: 0161 833 9833



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