No detail in the Norwegian Ibsen company’s staging of The Lady from the Sea is left to chance. In this bilingual version, Adrian Rawlins’ widower Dr Wangel is an English émigré living by a fjord in remote western Norway with his teenage daughters. But he’s not the only fish out of water: his younger second wife Ellida (captivatingly played by Pia Tjelta) is the sea-loving daughter of a lighthouse keeper.
Cleverly, Marit Moum Aune’s production re-imagines the original with 21-century sensibilities: younger daughter Hilde (Molly Windsor) is openly hostile to her the woman occupying her mother’s place in her father’s affections. And rather than exhibiting ‘hysteria’, Tjelta’s Ellida is traumatised by ghosts from the past: her dead child, her lost lover and her husband’s ex-wife. Her erratic behaviour is caused by the medication she takes to numb the pain.
Though 19th-century audiences might have bridled at idea of women’s self-determination, here outdated patriarchal attitudes are mercilessly mocked by the female characters.
Defying dour Nordic stereotype, the show twinkles with awkward humour. With his corduroy jacket and jelly shoes, Edward Ashley’s sickly sculptor Lyngstrand is never short of the wrong word to say. Likewise, a misguided proposal by Arnholm (Kare Conradi) to his former student Bolette (Marina Bye) is a wince-inducing comic episode.
Cut into a fjord backdrop, Erlend Birkeland’s set takes the form of a wood-lined room in front of which stretches an expanse of sand and grit. Nils Petter Molvaer’s evocative soundscapes underpin rather than steer the emotional currents, intensifying the sense of brooding menace as the dangerously alluring figure of Oystein Roger’s Stranger approaches.
Ultimately, the symbolism of Ibsen’s play looms large in this production’s skilful portrayals of dashed ambitions and pragmatic compromise: Ellida, who came from the the sea but is now accustomed to life on land, can never go back.