MAY 2008  
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The versatile Arcola Theatre space is transformed into a craggy Norwegian cliffside, the sea lapping on the fjord-side shore some way in the distance. An artist's easel captures the watercolour realism of a scene only hinted at by strategically-placed boulders, rustic iron garden furniture and symbolic arbours constructed from so much flotsam. Jason Southgate's expansive design spreads the action of The Lady from the Sea in and around the three blocks of audience seating. See the play three times, change your seat, and experience the varied focus of this brave performance concept. Although a simple device, the effect is not so much to stage the play in the round as to force a sense of dislocation on audience and actor, a dislocation which complements the mental state of the play's heroine.

Another effect of this innovative use of space is the intimacy, the active involvement, and the emotional connection that the actors can achieve with those who observe their every move, every thought. This is a play which not only speaks to the heart but to the soul. Hannah Eidenow's sympathetic and thoughtful direction underpins the forceful reality of the piece; in tune with her actors and with the Arcola space, Eidenow has drawn the best from both.

Of course, the bedrock of this wonderful evening is Ibsen's fascinating narrative of love, pain, rejection, longing, commitment, freedom and fortitude. Ellida, the eponymous lady from the sea, strives to keep her sanity in a world on the edge of her passion. Her marriage to the local doctor Wangel, a widower with two headstrong daughters from his previous wife, literally and metaphorically leads her to the shore, where the ebbing and flowing of the sea entices and invites. Ellida might be Dr Wangel's own Siren, but Ellida herself is drawn relentlessly by the sound of the waves and the memories and dreams of past love, past romance, and the bitter loss of her own only child.

When this past comes back to haunt Ellida, in the physical presence of the Stranger who demands her love once more, the scene is set for an exploration of that mental and physical power and attraction which understandably threatens to unhinge the unfortunate woman's mind. Ellida knows her own mother suffered mental health problems. Her new family know it too. How can a woman so drawn to the sea resolve the wild turmoil which threatens to carve her soul in two? How can she love the man she has married, and long to escape with the man she has idolized and idealized for ten long years? Love and freedom hold the key.

Frank McGuinness has brought Ellida and her traumatic existence to life. Expertly re-weaving the plot and the play, McGuinness captures the essence of Ibsen's drama and gives it a poetic voice that speaks directly to the play's twenty-first-century audience. As the book of the play announces, however, McGuinness has a particular muse for this magical version. Dedicated simply "for Lia Williams", The Lady from the Sea has obviously found that muse in the actor who so perfectly portrays this emotionally disturbed, passionately faithful, wildly exciting creature Ellida.

Lia Williams gives a virtuoso performance as the woman on a verge of a breakdown, but whose own strength and the love of those around her allow her the freedom to discover a new courage. Williams's greatest skill is, in my opinion, her ability to listen to her fellow actors. We see Ellida digest, sometimes devour the words of comfort and support directed towards her. We watch in awe as these words and deeds are noted and analysed, every nuance adding another concentric layer to the intellectual vocabulary of Williams's portrayal. Never contrived, there is an unstable realism to Williams's performance which commands absolute respect, absolute involvement from her audience.

Williams and McGuinness are well served by company ensemble. Jonathan Hackett plays a flawed and sensitive Dr Wangel, far too easily drawn to drink and desperately, devastatingly in love with his unfortunate wife. His daughters, Bolette and Hilde, expertly played by Alison McKenna and Fiona O'Shaughnessy, are themselves scarred by the death of their mother and their fears for their father. Even more, these same daughters might likewise long to escape one day, might likewise turn into ladies from the sea.

Two potential suitors come the young girls' ways in the persons of Arnholm (Sean Campion) and Lyngstrand (Chris Moran). Campion's Arnholm presents a maturity and stolid reliability which can hardly excite his chosen love and ex-pupil Bolette, but there is every sense that he will wear her down with his offers of freedom and adventure; in our hearts, though, we all recognize the reality, whereby Bolette will eventually feel as trapped in her marriage as Ellida feels drawn to the sea. As the dying consumptive Lyngstrand, Moran delights the audience with his inane and child-like portrayal of happiness. This wonderfully endearing character provides a fascinating juxtaposition to the intense emotional power of Ellida. Lyngstrand has high hopes for his future as a great sculptor; those around him recognize the futility of this dream, recognize the death-sentence hanging over him. Lyngstrand represents, yet again, the power of hope over reality.

The Lady from the Sea is a magnificent tale. McGuinness has embraced Ibsen's narrative and made it his own. His muse, Lia Williams, fully justifies the faith her friend and colleague has placed in her abilities as an actor. We feel Ellida's pain, we share her self-enlightenment, and we celebrate her triumphs. Most importantly, we believe the journey she takes as intently as she seems to long for the sea. Shut your eyes, breathe in the fresh sea air, and embrace the raw passion of this magnificent production.

Kevin Quarmby © 2008