There are times during this revival of Ibsen’s take on the Little Mermaid myth – premiering a new translation by director Stephen Unwin – you wish that the “lady from the sea” would just jump in the ocean and not come back. While Unwin is good at teasing out the humour and frustration of living somewhere more tourist pit-stop than place, his production is less sure-footed when it comes to venturing beyond the shallows of melodrama – grating when it needs to move and not fully conveying the turbulent undertow of longing that strands Ellida Wangel (Joely Richardson) dangerously between her past and present.
We meet Ellida in restless, self-imposed isolation, swimming in the Norwegian fjords that are a poor substitute for the seaside home from which she has been transplanted by her well-meaning but out-of-touch older husband (an almost too genial Malcolm Storry) to live with him and his two daughters. Ellida loves him but is haunted by a promise she made to another man ten years before. And when this man reappears, first as a vengeful figure in a lurid story told by an over-excitable visitor and, later, in person, the feelings it stirs in her have consequences for everyone.
As the play goes to great pains to remind us through a mix of nineteenth-century psychology and folk tale, the ocean is a state of mind; the submersion in water, the weightlessness, that Ellida yearns for, figurative. Her inability to “be a wife” in bed is inscribed in the barren Norwegian landscape that oppresses her and is rooted in the loss of freedom she so powerfully feels. The clichÃ©d painting of a dying mermaid unveiled by artist-cum-tour-guide Ballested in the opening scene acts as both an ironic counterpoint to her story and an insight into her plight. But she’s not the only one chafing at constraints.
Beginning with set designer Simon Higlett’s overly artful arbour filled with too-bright flowers, arranged by Bolette Wangel and younger sister Hilde in honour of their dead mother’s birthday, this production foregrounds the brittle layer of artifice that the characters use to cover the cracks in their lives but which has trapped them like flies in amber. An obviously painted backdrop of stormy clouds and a harshly over-lit stage reinforce this sense of depthless unreality. This is where Unwin’s interpretation of Ibsen is strongest and some of the best performances come from the younger cast members as their characters grapple with what life has dropped into their laps.
Madeleine Worrall brings a wryness and passion to Bolette that softens her character’s martyrish tendencies and invests us in her agreement to a marriage of convenience with her former tutor in order to leave home. Alexandra Moen is splendidly spiteful as Hilde, compensating for Ellida’s maternal neglect by dissecting people in speech as if they were specimens in a jar. Her pointed asking of the sickly and naively pompous Hans Lyngstrand (a hilarious Sam Crane) if black would suit her, just as he is romanticising his ill-health as the perfect attribute for his new identity as a tortured artist, is a dark delight. It is a shame, then, that the titular lady from the sea is neither as much fun nor as well-rounded as her step-children.
Ellida’s utter self-absorption makes the character a hard sell; but we need to sympathise with her predicament if the decision the heavily symbolic arrival of The Stranger prompts her to make about her future is to be meaningful. However, an alienating, over-the-top performance by Joely Richardson, full of hand-wringing and big sighs, makes this difficult. She isn’t helped by a script that signposts its themes at every turn and too often stumbles into bathos under the weight of its own portentousness. Ultimately, if this production succeeds in establishing the impassive surfaces of the dry, restrictive world Ellida finds herself in, it fails, with her character, to break through these to give the play the fluid depths it needs to suggest an alternative that we can believe in.