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The Lady from the Sea

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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Virtually the first thing we hear in Ibsen's The Lady from the Sea is the painter Ballestad describing his painting of a dying mermaid: "She's been washed up on the sea and can't find her way back. So here she is, dying in the rock pools... The lady of the house gave me the idea." It's played for laughs and establishes a warm comic tone which filters through this production. But it also captures the central dilemma for Joely Richardson's character Ellida Wangel - if you feel like you don't belong somewhere, should you stay?

Following in the footsteps of her mother Vanessa Redgrave and late sister Natasha Richardson, she plays the young second wife of loving Dr Wangel (Malcolm Storry) who is desperately trying to understand her recent strange moods. It doesn't help that Ellida has never felt able to play mother to grown up Bolette (an engaging Madeleine Worrall) or slyly sardonic, petulant Hilde (Alexandra Moen).

So when the Stranger - a sailor from her past - invites her to leave them "of her own free will", she almost revels in the torment of choosing between the "terrifying attraction" of the sea or homely dry land.

Richardson is a gorgeous, appealing and at times infuriating Ellida, as changeable as the sea (predictably); by turns glowing, arms outflung and vibrant, or nervy, hands fussing with her hair. And the costume department has pulled out all the stops, dressing her in beautiful, figure-hugging pale cerulean for the second half.

The open stage - simple wooden decking which curls up at the edges like breaking surf - is dominated by a mesmerising backdrop of the sky from set designer Simon Higlett which wraps the action in azure, shifting to dusky pink for the Aurora Borealis.

It's not exactly breaking news that Ibsen has a keen eye for strong, complex female characters but they are his forte in this play and the cast does them justice. The comic revelation is Sam Crane as superb, socially awkward Hans Lyngstrand. There were also a few nervy laughs from the audience on opening night, unsure what to make of the otherwise excellent Arnholm's (Richard Dillane) intimate scene with former pupil Bolette.

In any case, there's a pleasing and enthralling ebb and flow of action in this debut of Rose artistic director Stephen Unwin's translation of Ibsen's 1888 play, which is clear, light and poetic; much like his production.

- Vicky Ellis


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