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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at Arcola Theatre


  Jonathan Hackett and Lia Williams

Ibsen's mysterious play, as liquid and restless as the sea itself, completes a diptych of this writer at east London's enterprising Arcola Theatre that began earlier this spring with An Enemy of the People and has continued on to director Hannah Eidinow's compelling production of a difficult text. For many playgoers on both sides of the Atlantic the play remains associated with Vanessa Redgrave, who played the eponymous lady, Ellida Wangel, on Broadway and then in London some 30 years ago, only to have that part bequeathed to her daughter, Natasha Richardson, in a 2003 Almeida Theatre production that landed with a relentless phoniness. The current staging has been conceived around and for Lia Williams, who brings some of the the senior Redgrave's emotional transparency to the part as well as a shimmering intensity appropriate to a heroine who hovers dangerously on the brink of madness. She's been nervous, strange, her husband, Wangel (Jonathan Hackett, providing deeply moving support) says of his second wife, a traumatised beauty who exists at arm's length from her husband's two daughters and who can't escape the memory of a strange-eyed dead child that has left her moist with fear.

Ellida's past comes joltingly into the present with the re-emergence into her life of the Stranger (Chris Obi), who exerts a dark power (in Wangel's words) over Ellida, like some virile human embodiment of the sea. And so the way is cleared for another one of those Ibsen dramas in which bygone experience and the demands of the moment collide in what amounts to nothing less than a three-way struggle for Ellida's soul.To whom will she give herself over:Wangel, the Stranger, or, in putative Virginia Woolf fashion, the sea itself? The surprise sprung by Ibsen, and the source of much of the play's beauty, comes from its resolution of much the same argument that drives A Doll's House. But whereas Nora ends that play by seeking emancipation and self-fulfillment in bidding her home farewell, Ellida discovers that a comparable sense of freedom is indeed possible within a couple: in choosing her fate, she comes to realize that such a decision can involve another. Some human pathways, it seems, are able to be shared.

Ibsen enriches the central argument by spinning variations on it, both of which involve those same daughters of Wangel who regard their stepmother as a villain one minute, a viper the next. There's a touchingly hesitant give-and-take to the courtship between elder daughter Bolette (Alison McKenna) and the middle-aged tutor, Arnholm (Sean Campion, fondly remembered from Stones In His Pockets), who comes offering the very security from which Ellida at that particular instant is on the run. Younger daughter Hilde has a vision of her bridal self attired in black and, as she says, young in grief: a breathy Fiona O' Shaughnessy plays the part like some sort of Ellida-in-waiting -or, perhaps, as a dry run for the post-adolescent Hilde Wangel that illuminates a subsequen Ibsen play, The Master Builder, written four years later.

Eidinow stages the action across the capacious expanse of the Arcola, the theater's structural pillars the lone nod to the monumental in what wants to be an amorphous, faintly spectral environment in which it's perfectly possible that the dead could haunt the living. At first, one fears an evening of faux-atmospherics in which Giles Perring's sound design seems to have gone into Nordic overdrive. And it doesn't help that Chris Moran, as the ailing if devoted wannabe sculptor Lyngstrand, gives us a performance that threatens to be all teeth- once he eases up on t


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