Writer: Henrik Ibsen, in a new version by Stephen Unwin
Director: Stephen Unwin
Reviewer: Sebastian de Montmorency
There’s an ongoing fascination with Ibsen’s plays, which never seem to go out of fashion in British theatres, as modern writers continually create their own versions of his work. David Eldridge took on The Lady from the Sea at Manchester’s Royal Exchange in 2010 and now Stephen Unwin has adapted his own version at for the Rose Theatre in Kingston-upon-Thames which he also directs. He has secured quite the casting coup too, in attracting Joely Richardson to a role which has been notably played by her mother Vanessa Redgrave and sadly departed sister Natasha, though given the rave reviews received especially by the latter, one could say it is a brave choice.
And it is one which succeeds in part. Richardson carries the mellifluous tones and gorgeous expressiveness that seems in abundance in that family with great poise and makes a strikingly compelling attempt at capturing the elusive Ellida. She’s a woman whose deep spiritual connection to the sea, and to the love of her life, pose challenges to her new life as the wife of Wangel, a traditional man struggling to deal with the complexity of his new partner, and this is played out well. Malcolm Storry possesses much kindly charm as he tries his best as Ellida navigates the emotional rollercoaster precipated by the return of her lost love, and Richardson really grows into the part as the gravity of her situation finally sinks in.
But in aiming for accessibility with a new version that is sprinkled with a light humour and a disarming sense of optimism, Unwin’s shifting of the tone of the play undermines a little too much of it. Ellida’s pyschological torment doesn’t quite hit home as seriously as it ought and so lessens the impact of her journey; and the marital negotiations of Wangel’s daughter Bolette to her elderly former tutor are treated with far too light a touch, meaning the audience moves far too easily to laughter at what should be a chilling acquiescence to female societal norms in direct contrast to that of her stepmother. Ibsen will take some lightness to counteract its natural gloom but this approach seems to work counter to the play itself.
Simon Higlett’s set does a great job of utilising the wide stage of the Rose – bleached timber underfoot and a Turner-inspired swathe of watercolour dominating the back wall are enough to evoke the small Norwegian township. And the quality of the ensemble is always good with Madeleine Worrall battling particularly well against the inappropriate laughs as the constrained but quietly moving Bolette. But the overall effect is one of somewhat misconceived tinkering from Unwin in a production which really doesn’t need it.