Whilst he never won a Nobel Prize [despite four separate nominations] the 19th century playwright Henrik Ibsen carries an even more prestigious appellation: ‘the father of realism’. For someone who hasn’t seen his work performed that title can give an image of the Norwegian’s oeuvre that’s subtly out of skew with reality. Rather than proto-Kitchen Sink drama many of Ibsen’s plays seethe with symbolism and heavily expressionistic elements. The Lady from the Sea, initially performed in 1888, is on one hand a bitingly relevant drama about communication and regret but under it’s dark and turbulent surface pulses something rather more Jungian.
The version that has washed up onto the Gothic shores of the Coronet’s sand-strewn stage is a rather modern beast. Many adaptations of Ibsen get hung up on period fittings and stilted attempts at providing authenticity, from costume to dialogue and only succeed in making the second most performed playwright in the world [no prizes for guessing whose number 1] feel like an austere period piece. However this joint production between Print Room and the Norwegian Ibsen Company manages the tricky feat of modernising the action in a way that exposes rather than distracts from the bruised heart at the centre of the drama. Far from being stilted, the dialogue crackles with ironic misunderstandings and misspeaking that put you as much in mind of Peep Show as Twelfth Night. Ibsen has admittedly never been held up as particularly side-splitting but the, often mean-spirited, humour helps to ground some of the darker moments in the kind of mundanity that we can only alleviate with bright cold stabs of comedy.
The Lady from the Sea is both equally inspired by Scandanavian folklore and a rather sordid incident from the great playwright’s own life. The titular lady is Ellida, a free-spirit in love with the sea, who has found herself the second wife of a seemingly good-natured if ineffectual doctor named Wangel. From the beginning it’s clear that this is a marriage with serious systemic issues, not exactly aided by Wangel’s two daughters from his previous marriage who secretly venerate their deceased mother with silent complicity from their cognac sodden father. Ellida is an outsider in her own life, traumatised by the death of her child three years prior. Kept queasily medicated by Wangel she finds herself obsessing over the distant sea and a previous, quasi-mythical lover who seems to be its emissary. He unexpectedly returns with a force of a storm and threatens to crush the quiet bourgeois desperation of the family’s shared life together.
This version has stripped out a lot of the symbolism of the original text, but by trimming it down to the bare minimum it builds a dreamlike feeling of the supernatural bubbling under the harsh presentation of a world which chews women up with bored relish. The play is in a combination of English and the occasional bout of surtitled Norwegian. The predominance of the English serves a dramatic purpose by further underlining Ellida’s isolation from herself. All of the actors who occupy the stark set, which recreates a dismal beach outside of the wooden decking of the hotel, give fantastic and sensitive performances but particular credit has to be given to Kåre Conradi who plays Arnholm. An avuncular teacher going to seed in his middle age, he is frequently hilarious, but a devastating scene late in the play shows that Conradi can turn his character on a dime with unsavoury gusto. The only lesser note in the play is Øystein Røger’s ominous Stranger, but considering that his character’s brief appearances serve as more of a plot device than a character, this is to be expected.
Expressionistic whilst totally grounded in reality, funny yet tragic, current and timeless both, this is a serious adaptation of Ibsen that should be respected as Exhibit A of why the playwright still matters.
The Lady from the Sea is playing at the Coronet theatre in Notting Hill until March 9th, Tickets can be purchased here