Arcola Theatre, London E8
Opened 2 May, 2008

This is the second major UK outing in as many months for Ibsen’s 1888 drama. It is usually revived far less frequently, as its elements of mythology and melodrama are (Peer Gynt aside) alien to our notions of the playwright. Ellida, her husband Dr Wangel and stepdaughters have their family problems centring on the matter of remarriage, but Ellida’s contribution to the brew is far more intangible: as her nickname among the fjordside townspeople indicates, she feels herself to be somehow a creature of the open sea beyond. When a mysterious seafaring Stranger arrives to claim her (following a form of marriage they had gone through some years previously), she feels drawn less to the sailor in himself than to what he represents.
Director Hannah Eidinow does not stint on the atmospherics, with brooding soundscapes, shadowy lighting and broad, shallow faux-windows on either side of the auditorium that are meant to suggest blurred views of the fjord or sea but instead give the impression that we are in an aquarium. Conversely, there are also more than Ibsen’s usual measured ration of gags. Frank McGuinness’s new translation has, as often with him, a natural Irish twang to it (Eidinow may recognise this in her casting of the cautious Alison McKenna and the huskily appealing Fiona O’Shaughnessy as Wangel’s daughters and Sean Campion as a family friend), and a sardonic Celtic delivery helps matters along. So does an uncharacteristically comical invalid character, played by Christopher Moran with a pallor and rictus smile that make him look like the work of an over-enthusiastic trainee embalmer.
However, the humour and melodrama clash more often than they complement each other. Lia Williams has a gift for playing the anguish behind a character’s lines, but when it’s right up front as here she is driven on occasion even to resort to actorly howls as Ellida. Jonathan Hackett’s Wangel is a classic Ibsen husband, well-meaning but small-minded and proprietorial as he tries to repudiate the Stranger on Ellida’s behalf. When the twist comes – that, for once, the husband realises the necessity of setting his wife free, and that this paradoxically empowers her to choose to remain with him – the play beaches itself rather perfunctorily. Ibsen was a writer of tremendous insight, but seldom at his best with numinous symbolism.
Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

Return to index of reviews for the year 2008

Return to master reviews index

Return to main theatre page

Return to Shutters homepage