There is something mystical and elemental about Ibsen’s The Lady from the Sea, and the valiant revival at the Arcola, in a new version by Frank McGuinness, has plenty of sighs and wafting sounds of ships and mermaids, and a strong central performance by Lia Williams as Ellida, whose child has died with the eyes of a maritime stranger.
The play’s symbolism is rooted in physical detail, which gives it a special flavour: an incomplete portrait of a dying mermaid is made real by Ellida’s first entrance after a swim in the fjord. Williams may not exude the powerful sensuality of a drenched and glistening Vanessa Redgrave in a white towel thirty years ago, but she is certainly frantic.
Her outburst against the diseased water makes a link with the Arcola’s first Ibsen play in this season, An Enemy of the People. But instead of veering into civic disruption, the play strives towards the higher ground of spiritual well-being: Ellida is trapped in a sexless marriage with the much older Dr Wangel (Jonathan Hackett) and is virtually estranged from her two grown-up step-daughters, Bolette and Hilde, whom Alison McKenna and Fiona O'Shaughnessy place firmly in the Celtic twilight.
These daughters are respectively matched, in some beautifully wrought scenes of seductive wrangling, with the returning tutor Arnholm (Sean Campion) and the gauche and grinning sculptor Lyngstrand (Chris Moran). A curious comedy of new liaisons is played out against the thrum of Ellida’s crisis as the Stranger (Chris Obi), the man she loved but who has committed a murder, threatens to drag her back to the sea.
Hannah Eidinow’s production is generously spread through the vast dark room of the Arcola, with designer Jason Southgate eschewing his Enemy verandah for a more Expressionistic arrangement of a domestic interior, a scrawny tree, and a few piles of pebbles. It never quite soars, but it keeps you engaged throughout five fairly long acts.
In her red page boy haircut and tight-fitting grey silk dress, Lia Williams looks as much at odds with her setting as she is with her feelings; she pushes Ellida into a sense of sickly horror that can only be dispelled by an extraordinary gesture of love from Wangel. The choice is between duty and destiny. Her ship comes in, but not in the way you expect.