Friday, 15 February 2019
Ibsen's seascapes of the soul
The National Theatre of Norway's visit to Print Room at the Coronet last year with a lacerating production of Ibsen's Little Eyolf has led to one of the most exciting collaborations in London theatre. Whatever the disasters the removal of EU free movement may mean for our cultural scene, Norway has the funds to make sure that the new company founded by the Allmers in that production, top actor Kåre Conradi, flourishes. The Norwegian Ibsen Company's first major offering, a slightly adapted update of The Lady from the Sea, maintains the level of vision we saw in Little Eyolf.
In one way, it adds to it. There's a clear distinction in the play between those Norwegians who long for freedom and the sea on the one hand and the more contained land-creatures like Wangel, who has married Ellida, 'The Lady from the Sea', on the other. So a mixed cast of British and Norwegian actors, slipping naturally from one language into another (English translation on the back wall, as in Little Eyolf, when Norwegian is spoken) suits one theme of the play.
Let's get the only weak link out of the way first. For me, Adrian Rawlins' Wangel (pictured above with Pia Tjelta; all images by Tristram Kenton) didn't quite add up: too nervy, rather unconvincing in the explosions of anger. I can't help wishing that Conradi, superb as the teacher Arnholm who returns on a misunderstanding to 'claim' Wangel's older daughter Bolette, had taken the more crucial character. But Rawlins, like Øystein Røger as a silver-fox, all-too-real Stranger, interacted well with the mesmerising Pia Tjelta, returning after her great performance as Rita Allmers in Little Eyolf to take on another of Ibsen's most compelling roles.
Proud but terrorised by her long-term images of the man who tried to claim her soul at sea, Tjelta's Ellida lets us read every emotion in her face. The voice, deep and sensual, does half the work. We're stricken with pity that Wangel as doctor plies her with pills - anti-depressants, tranquillisers? - to which it turns out he's not averse either. And then the magnificent straightening-up in the moment of decision, when the weight of constraining fantasy is lifted off her shoulders; it carries what can be a difficult moment dramatically. Much as I enjoyed Kwame Kwei-Armah's production at the Young Vic, which perhaps had a lighter touch, it didn't drive home in the same way that outward forces can also get buried and distorted deep in the psyche. A myth of the elements becomes an introspective drama. I thought of Sibelius, where dynamics of the soul are too often taken for forces of nature - the music has both, of course - and of Wagner, the second act of whose Die Walküre Jurowski described as 'an Ibsen play put inside a Homer epic'.
The test for the ensemble - this version sheds one character, Ballestad - really comes after the interval, in a sequence of devastating one-to-ones. The casting of three young people fresh from drama school is inspired. Edward Ashley (pictured above with Tjelta) manages the difficulty of making consumptive young artist Lyngstrand sympathetic even in his expectations of what a woman-as-wife should be for her husband - how daring for 1888 to have the object of his expectations challenge this so directly - while Marina Bye, fresh from the Guildhall as Bolette (pictured below with Conradi), seems to follow in Tjelta's footsteps in showing us what this girl longing for freedom, maybe at any price, is feeling at every moment.
Molly Windsor (pictured below with Rawlins) tells us who dangerous, impetuous Hilde Wangel, longing for love, is immediately, and what she will become in The Master Builder.
These are strong and yet paradoxically vulnerable women (that's the ambiguity of Ibsen's infinite depths for you). Director Marit Moum Aune has a masterstroke at the end: I shouldn't spoil it, but let's just say it's a grouping of which a modern audience wholeheartedly approves. Erlend Birkeland's set, making good use of a wide-projecting stage, gives the characters plenty of sand to play with; Simon Bennison's lighting works its magic and, when necessary, mystery.
The false note for me was the anodyne and way too persistent muzak of Nils Petter Molvær; I concede that a little might be necessary for the supposedly supernatural element, but better none at all than this. Otherwise, on with the next project. I might just go and see this one again; it runs until 9 March. Meanwhile, onwards to a Lithuanian sea-picture and Grieg's incidental music to Peer Gynt in Birmingham on Saturday. Then it's back to Norway, and a snowy inland landscape for a music festival with a difference.