The Lady from the Sea by Henrik Ibsen, in a new version by Frank McGuinness

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The Lady from the Sea by Henrik Ibsen, in a new version by Frank McGuinness, BBC Radio 3, 1 November 2009


At one level Hannah Eidinow’s fascinating production focused on the power of the natural world to influence human beings. Try as she might, Elida (Lia Williams) cannot extricate herself from the sea; she not only has to live near to it, but she senses that it controls her entire life. Either she will end up drowning in it, a victim of its irresistible power, or have to return to it by sailing away forever from her husband Vangel (Hugh Bonneville). As the action unfolds, she is faced with a stark choice – either to stay with Vangel, or to return to a mysterious stranger (Christopher Obi), who changes names at will, but who insists that she has an inextricable bond with her, a bond forged many years earlier (before Elida met Vangel) and symbolized by a chain hanging round her neck. In this production the stranger’s identity was kept deliberately mysterious: all we learned from Arnholm (Tim McMullan)) that the stranger had been one of the few survivors of a shipwreck. Whenever he appeared, we heard the strains of unearthly music in the background, almost as if director Eidinow were trying to suggest that he was a ghost. Perhaps he was more of a presence than a living human being – a symbol of the sea and all that it represented for Elida.

More significantly this production concentrated on Elida’s search for self-determination in a patriarchal world where everyone tries to pigeonhole her. Aware of the fact that his wife seems a little bit distant, Vangel invites Arnholm to stay – as one of Elida’s ex-boyfriends, Arnholm might help bring her ‘to her senses.’ The irony of this assumption emerges as the action unfolds, as we learn that it is Arnholm himself who needs to be ‘brought to his senses;’ having spent most of his life as a school-teacher, he is desperately in need of a female partner. Eventually he asks Hilde (Ellie Kendrick) to marry him; surprisingly she accepts – in the belief, perhaps that few alternatives exist for her in a patriarchal world.

By contrast Elida develops techniques of resistance to her husband. In this revival these took the form of honest, straightforward statements; although her husband might want to confine her physically, he could never restrict her mind. She had too great an identification with the sea to confine herself for the rest of her life as Vangel’s wife. As the action draws to close, it seemed as if she has made her choice – to return to the stranger and leave her husband for good. However Eidinow staged the ending of the play in such a way as to make it seem a complete surprise: when faced with her choice, Elida paused for a few seconds, took a deep breath and vowed to return to her husband. This might have seemed like a voluntary acceptance of patriarchal authority; but as Elida herself explains, she has made the decision of her own free will, rather than acceding to the stranger’s insistent cries that she has a duty to return to the sea with him. The decision finally rid her of her association with the sea (signalled in this production by a deliberate and abrupt curtailment of the sound of the waves, which hitherto had formed a backdrop to the action). Now she could step out on her own.

The Lady from the Sea is a difficult play – especially for the leading actress, who has to suggest a gradual acquisition of self-determination without seeming too bossy. This Williams achieved through a measured yet firm delivery.