The Norwegians show us how Ibsen ought to be done with this powerful bilingual revival.
By Tom Wicker, TIME OUT (14 February 2019)
The Norwegians have come to Notting Hill to show us how their most famous writer, Henrik Ibsen, should be done, in this bilingual staging of ‘The Lady from the Sea’. A co-production between the Norwegian Ibsen Company and The Print Room, it strips away the sort of starchy period hand-wringing that can plague second-rate Ibsen revivals.
Loosely inspired by folktale, the play finds the sea-loving Ellida washed up in a town in the mountains of west Norway, unhappily married to Wangel, a doctor, and resented by her two stepdaughters, Bolette and Hilde. The arrival of Arnholm, Bolette’s ex-teacher, stirs things up, while sickly, wannabe artist Lyngstrand nervously hangs around, as beige as his corduroys.
Director Marit Moum Aune’s staging is strikingly light on its feet: funny, human and sad. For the most part, she successfully dislodges the characters from the pedestal of heavy symbolism. She prods the sinews of their conversations to make them living people, underplaying high drama in favour of an awkward social dance that’s full of deflected glances and trailing sentences. This is a group of people trapped by their choices and by each other.
The script’s fluid flip between surtitled Norwegian and Mari Vatne Kjeldstadli’s English translation brings its own dramatic voice. Depending on who’s speaking, the switch between the two captures both distance and intimacy as characters pace around the bleak sweep of designer Erlend Birkeland’s stark, sand-covered set, parched and featureless apart from a pointedly placed fish tank.
If the sea represents liberation, its depths are murky here. As Ellida, Pia Tjelta returns to Ibsen at the Print Room after last year’s ‘Little Eyolf’. She’s a tremendous stage presence as a woman still reeling from the death of her baby son three years earlier. Her obsession with a man from her past, and with the ocean, only takes full flight after she’s been medicated to the eyeballs by her controlling, fearful, cognac-swigging husband (Adrian Rawlins).
This isn’t mythologised tragedy. Metaphor plays second fiddle to a nuanced portrait of just how family members can hurt each other. Molly Windsor gives us enough of a glimpse of the aching vulnerability beneath Hilde’s spiteful bravado to make it sting. As Bolette, desperate for education and travel, Marina Bye feels closest to us on stage, registering the double standards of Edward Ashley’s haplessly stupid Lyngstrand or Kåre Conradi’s lovelorn Arnholm.
It’s all rooted in such an effective, pained sense of reality, it’s actually pretty jarring when Ellida’s former lover plods down the steps of the auditorium with almost parodic ominousness. Everyone else is so well fleshed out, he feels out of place. But this ultimately doesn’t derail a powerfully complex production that scrapes away many of the barnacles of cliché and lets us see Ibsen properly.
‘a mesmeric performance’
By Dave Hollander, THE STAGE (14 February 2019)
No detail in the Norwegian Ibsen Company’s staging of The Lady from the Sea is left to chance. In this bilingual version, Adrian Rawlins’ widower Dr Wangel is an English émigré living by a fjord in remote western Norway with his teenage daughters. But he’s not the only fish out of water: his younger second wife Ellida (captivatingly played by Pia Tjelta) is the sea-loving daughter of a lighthouse keeper.
Cleverly, Marit Moum Aune’s production re-imagines the original with 21-century sensibilities: younger daughter Hilde (Molly Windsor) is openly hostile to her the woman occupying her mother’s place in her father’s affections. And rather than exhibiting ‘hysteria’, Tjelta’s Ellida is traumatised by ghosts from the past: her dead child, her lost lover and her husband’s ex-wife. Her erratic behaviour is caused by the medication she takes to numb the pain.
Though 19th-century audiences might have bridled at idea of women’s self-determination, here outdated patriarchal attitudes are mercilessly mocked by the female characters.
Defying dour Nordic stereotype, the show twinkles with awkward humour. With his corduroy jacket and jelly shoes, Edward Ashley’s sickly sculptor Lyngstrand is never short of the wrong word to say. Likewise, a misguided proposal by Arnholm (Kare Conradi) to his former student Bolette (Marina Bye) is a wince-inducing comic episode.
Cut into a fjord backdrop, Erlend Birkeland’s set takes the form of a wood-lined room in front of which stretches an expanse of sand and grit. Nils Petter Molvaer’s evocative soundscapes underpin rather than steer the emotional currents, intensifying the sense of brooding menace as the dangerously alluring figure of Oystein Roger’s Stranger approaches.
Ultimately, the symbolism of Ibsen’s play looms large in this production’s skilful portrayals of dashed ambitions and pragmatic compromise: Ellida, who came from the the sea but is now accustomed to life on land, can never go back.
“Beautifully conceived bilingual update of Ibsen’s drama about loss and longing, with a mesmeric central performance.”
I should say before I start, that I don’t really like Ibsen. Despite being the second most performed writer after Shakespeare, I find his proto-feminist scripts dated, and his high-realism to be at odds with his heavily idea-oriented scripts. Though Ibsen ranks among Euripides, Bernard Shaw and Strindberg as writers apt for reinterpretation and adaptation, I find his ‘strong female characters’ are often quite archaic and simplistic representations. That all said, and perhaps because of it, the Norwegian Ibsen Company’s production of The Lady From The Sea is really very good.
The narrative focusses on the unhappiness of a disjointed family living in West Norway. As in all Ibsen plays, the arrival and leavings of various characters manage to unhitch the uneasy stability of family life, revealing underlying tensions and frustrations. The central relationship is that of Wangel (Adrian Rawlins) and his new wife, Ellida (Pia Tjelta), who are struggling to find the balance of give and take that marriage and family requires. As suggested in the title, there is some suggestion that Ellida is ‘from the sea’, as she swims every morning, and talks endlessly about the beauty and fascination of the waves. Their relationship is put to the test when Ellida begins to drift and dream of her long lost lover, who she feels will return imminently. This unhappy love triangle is Ibsen’s inroad to examining female agency, male entitlement, freedom and longing.
Erlend Birkeland’s set is relatively plain, with the entire stage being covered with sand and stones, in front of what appears to be a house, but is perhaps also a sauna. Aside from a couple of chairs and steps, the eye is drawn to a neon-lit fish tank in the upstage corner, perhaps an allusion to Ellida’s feeling of being trapped on land. Nils Petter Molvær’s sound design is relatively unobtrusive, and perhaps a little overmodest, adding very little to the play.
Marit Moum Aune’s decision to script parts of the dialogue in Norwegian (though the original text is in Danish) is a clever one, suggesting a separation between Wangel and Ellida and also alluding to the huge geographical separation between northern Norway and the South (Norway is 2500 kilometers North to South, with the northern parts largely unpopulated). There was perhaps a suggestion that Ellida was related to the Sami people, as she is distinctly ‘other’ to the rest of the family, an avenue not normally pursued by singularly English adaptations.
Ellida is torn between returning to the sea routes and leaving Wangel for ‘The Stranger’, a sailor travelling north. The central crux is her apparent choice between her two lovers, though both feel that she belongs to them, neither recognising her agency in her life. This male entitlement is echoed across each of the male characters, as Arnholm (Kåre Conradi) more or less forces Bolette (Marina Bye) to marry him in order to get monetary support for her studies. Bye finds a powerful balance between determined and desperate in the face of patriarchal power.
Though each of the female characters are the decision makers, Ibsen frames their choices strictly within a male framework. Under Marit Moum Aune’s direction, the men are equal parts pathetic and powerful; one can’t help but note contemporary parallels with the gatekeepers of success in the arts industry. The play concludes with female solidarity and the men pushed behind. Not exactly triumphant, but maybe determined.
Whilst he never won a Nobel Prize [despite four separate nominations] the 19th century playwright Henrik Ibsen carries an even more prestigious appellation: ‘the father of realism’. For someone who hasn’t seen his work performed that title can give an image of the Norwegian’s oeuvre that’s subtly out of skew with reality. Rather than proto-Kitchen Sink drama many of Ibsen’s plays seethe with symbolism and heavily expressionistic elements. The Lady from the Sea, initially performed in 1888, is on one hand a bitingly relevant drama about communication and regret but under it’s dark and turbulent surface pulses something rather more Jungian.
The version that has washed up onto the Gothic shores of the Coronet’s sand-strewn stage is a rather modern beast. Many adaptations of Ibsen get hung up on period fittings and stilted attempts at providing authenticity, from costume to dialogue and only succeed in making the second most performed playwright in the world [no prizes for guessing whose number 1] feel like an austere period piece. However this joint production between Print Room and the Norwegian Ibsen Company manages the tricky feat of modernising the action in a way that exposes rather than distracts from the bruised heart at the centre of the drama. Far from being stilted, the dialogue crackles with ironic misunderstandings and misspeaking that put you as much in mind of Peep Show as Twelfth Night. Ibsen has admittedly never been held up as particularly side-splitting but the, often mean-spirited, humour helps to ground some of the darker moments in the kind of mundanity that we can only alleviate with bright cold stabs of comedy.
The Lady from the Sea is both equally inspired by Scandanavian folklore and a rather sordid incident from the great playwright’s own life. The titular lady is Ellida, a free-spirit in love with the sea, who has found herself the second wife of a seemingly good-natured if ineffectual doctor named Wangel. From the beginning it’s clear that this is a marriage with serious systemic issues, not exactly aided by Wangel’s two daughters from his previous marriage who secretly venerate their deceased mother with silent complicity from their cognac sodden father. Ellida is an outsider in her own life, traumatised by the death of her child three years prior. Kept queasily medicated by Wangel she finds herself obsessing over the distant sea and a previous, quasi-mythical lover who seems to be its emissary. He unexpectedly returns with a force of a storm and threatens to crush the quiet bourgeois desperation of the family’s shared life together.
This version has stripped out a lot of the symbolism of the original text, but by trimming it down to the bare minimum it builds a dreamlike feeling of the supernatural bubbling under the harsh presentation of a world which chews women up with bored relish. The play is in a combination of English and the occasional bout of surtitled Norwegian. The predominance of the English serves a dramatic purpose by further underlining Ellida’s isolation from herself. All of the actors who occupy the stark set, which recreates a dismal beach outside of the wooden decking of the hotel, give fantastic and sensitive performances but particular credit has to be given to Kåre Conradi who plays Arnholm. An avuncular teacher going to seed in his middle age, he is frequently hilarious, but a devastating scene late in the play shows that Conradi can turn his character on a dime with unsavoury gusto. The only lesser note in the play is Øystein Røger’s ominous Stranger, but considering that his character’s brief appearances serve as more of a plot device than a character, this is to be expected.
Expressionistic whilst totally grounded in reality, funny yet tragic, current and timeless both, this is a serious adaptation of Ibsen that should be respected as Exhibit A of why the playwright still matters.
Engrossing Anglo-Norwegian production has some strong performances
by Katherine Waters, THE ARTS DESK (18 February 2019)
Ellida (Pia Tjelta) has a choice to make, the outcome of which will bind her future to her past or her present, each represented by a man. On the one hand, there is the tempestuous sea-faring Stranger (Øystein Røger) to whom, long ago and in a fit of delirium, she pledged herself; on the other, there is her devoted and rational doctor husband Wangel (Adrian Rawlins). The consequences of neither option are clear, for while Ellida has lived through both periods, she has hardly been alive in either. Instead, the heroine of Ibsen’s 1888 drama is numbed, adrift, and it is only now – under turbulent threat – that she can begin to navigate the choppy consequences of her actions and begin to plumb her own psyche.
Ibsen’s psychologically dense drama unfolds in a remote fjord town through which tourists pass in pursuit of white nights. The two daughters of Wangel’s first marriage have grown up in this backwater; both yearn for more. The world visits and retreats seasonally, ebbing and flowing like the tide, but the sense is of fishbowl claustrophobia. Bolette (Marina Bye) dreams of university but is compassionately yoked to her alcohol-dependent father; the prescience of her younger sister, Hilde (Molly Windsor), senses the friable edges of everyone around her and threatens to tip herself into an angsty madness precipitated through boredom. Compared to the wild refreshing ocean, the waters here are stagnant, “sick”.
In the director Marit Moum Aune’s Anglo-Norwegian production, designed by Erlend Birkeland, a tongue of sand stretches into the auditorium and a rectangular veranda at the back of the stage gives onto a glassed-in room which serves as hallway, living room and sauna. Much of the action takes place outside, but this indoor perspective allows groups and individuals to catch sight of each other at inopportune moments. It’s not just Ellida who has to form her future through a choice between men: Bolette is being pursued by her older teacher, Arnholm (Kåre Conradi), whom, in a fit of misapprehension, Wangel has invited to visit; morbid Hilde and the dying Lyngstrand (Edward Ashley) have a compact that is half sibling rivalry, half amorous, though he is clearly besotted by Bolette. A lilac-lit fish tank stands nearby, the comparison is clear; surveillance and speculation are natural in such confines.
The difficulty of throwing Ibsen’s acutely observed psychological states onto the open stage is partly solved by dramatic, filmic lighting changes and intermittent soundtrack, composed by Nils Petter Molvær. Bolette pushes a knitting needle into her hand in the dark to a tense thrum until Lyngstrand arrives on the strand and fails to notice her bleeding palm; Hilda piles sand over her face in a frantic depiction of – and reaction against – her suffocating circumstance. These intricate exchanges push the action forward, but the lighting and sound occasionally intrude rather than complement. Nevertheless, as the second half warms to the urgency of Ellida’s decision, they carry the melodrama with pace.
Another mixed blessing is the use of Norwegian for certain interchanges. This is principally used to emphasise the various gulfs – cultural, linguistic, emotional – that exist between Wangel and Ellida, but it also serves to show the family’s general sense of not fitting in, or having to be permanently bridging divides. Unlike a film where subtitles overlay picture, in this show they are projected onto the wall, tearing the audience’s eyes away from the scene taking place just below. Distraction aside, it remains a sheer delight to hear the loops and planes of Norwegian consonants and vowels fill the stage like gulls and waves.
There are some wonderful performances. Rawlins‘s Wangel pinches and sniffs, a flinching, bearded mouse of a man, who, despite his inability to cope evenly with uncertain circumstances, has a steely core. Conradi as Arnholm bounces and performs as a charismatic but buffoonish batchelor whose inappropriateness stems from desperation and loss. Tjelta as Ellida treads the thin line between mental illness and semi-spiritual prescience. Windsor’s strops, tantrums and snarky asides as Hilde reeks of hormones and impatient adolescence.
Ellida’s choice is not a clean one. Both options compromise parts of her life that nourish her being – but it’s a necessary choice. Bolette and Hilde have yet to make decisions of a momentousness that they will either inhabit or disavow later in their lives. The perennial question is, what degree of entrapment are you willing to bear for a certain kind of freedom?
The cast are superb and work as a finely tuned machine.
By Cindy Marcolina, BROADWAY WORLD (19 February 2019)
The Print Room at The Coronet is hosting a slick and melancholic bilingual revival of Henrik Ibsen‘s The Lady From The Sea produced by the venue in their first collaboration with The Norwegian Ibsen Company.
The playwright shocked his audiences when he premiered it in 1889 with his representation of family and defiance of societal norms. Now director Marit Moum Aune opens up the narrative and puts the three women centre-stage in an in-depth analysis of independence and internal conflict.
Ellida (Pia Tjelta) is haunted by her past and struggling with being Doctor Wangel’s (Adrian Rawlins) second wife. His daughters Bolette (Marina Bye) and Hilde (Molly Windsor) grapple with accepting her into their nucleus and she feels like an outsider in her own home. When Arnholm (Kåre Conradi), Bolette’s former teacher, arrives on the doctor’s invitation, there’s a shift in their precarious harmony and a profound reflection on emotional ties is triggered.
Moum Aune freezes time and presents the play as enclosed in a metaphorical fishbowl. By mixing naturalism and symbolism in her craft, she highlights the writer’s modern thinking and focuses on the relationships (both romantic and familial) between the characters. She layers the direction, sprinkling metaphors in the actor’s physicality and putting on cold but delicate visuals.
Difficult and very personal conversations are carried out in Ibsen’s native Norwegian, with surtitles projected onto the scenery. This directorial choice comes off as smooth and sensible, as Moum Aune drags out the characters’ most intimate strife and appeals to their origins. The decision also adds authenticity to the production, at the same time managing to leave it accessible and relatable to a broad public.
Set designer Erlend Birkeland gives the stage a rather bucolic aura with unwavering cold lighting curated by Simon Bennison. He covers it with sand and pebbles while a painted backdrop depicting a Norwegian landscape looms over the scene, reminding the audience of the influence of the setting in Moum Aune‘s production. A fish tank with live goldfish on the far right corner works as a direct link to the director’s (and Ibsen’s own) analogy, cutting to the chase and serving as a perhaps too-easy reference.
The cast are superb and work as a finely tuned machine. Tjelta tactfully brings out the inner turmoil and discord of the titular character while Rawlins‘ rational approach acts as balance to her emotions. Bye and Windsor become two faces of the same medal as the daughters, they yearn emancipation and yet strive to be accepted by others, while Conradi‘s teacher alternates moments of confidence with slight hesitance.
As the sickly (and sometimes creepy) Lyngstrand, Edward Ashley is lanky and justly awkward with jelly sandals at his feet and inelegant attitude. Lastly, Øystein Røger takes over the stage with his two interventions as The Stranger who stirs Ellida.
The Norwegian Ibsen Company‘s first co-production with The Print Room is an exquisite gift to London’s multiculturalism as is the choice to offer this version of Ibsen’s The Lady From The Sea to its theatrical panorama.
“It is the fashion these days to strip Ibsen to the bone. This exhilarating production from Norway’s National Theatre – played in Norwegian with surtitles – is very much in the modern mode. It runs, like Richard Eyre’s 2015 Almeida version, for a brisk 85 minutes, and is played in modern dress with mostly bare feet and minimal furniture. It leaves you, as all good Ibsen should, quietly shattered.
Guilt is the prevailing theme as Rita and Alfred Allmers try to repair a marriage already haunted by the accident that happened to their boy, Eyolf, when they were preoccupied in making love. What is especially striking about Sofia Jupither’s production is its realisation of Ibsen’s sexual candour. Pia Tjelta’s Rita can hardly keep her hands off Kåre Conradi’s withdrawn Alfred as he returns from a six-week walking tour in the mountains and unbuttons his shirt with frenzy. Alfred’s passion for his half-sister, Asta, is more decorously expressed but no less intense. The most shocking revelation comes when we learn that Alfred, who used to call Asta “Little Eyolf”, cried out that name at a moment of orgasm with his wife. Written in 1894, the play emerges as both breathtakingly honest and the ancestor of soul-baring modern dramas by Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee.
Jupither’s production also brings out Ibsen’s grim humour. When Tjelta’s superb Rita, a Lady Macbeth of the fjords, announces that she intends to devote herself to looking after neglected children, one’s initial response is that the police should be alerted. Conradi captures perfectly Alfred’s self-regarding intellectualism, and there is fine support from Ine Jansen as an anguished Asta and from Andrine Sæther, who turns the symbolic figure of the Rat-Wife, sensing something troublesome gnawing away in the house, into a hippy Pied Piper. This is Ibsen with the gloves off, and the only sadness is that the production was given a bare three-night run. Someone should invite this company back to give us an extended Ibsen season.”
Michael Billington, The Guardian (20 April 2018)
“Pia Tjelta and Kåre Conradi succeed in an unusually clear Little Eyolf.” Dagbladet
“Merciless on complacency” ***** VG
“When Little Eyolf ends in a black with a glimmer of hope that both shakes and pains, it is an Ibsen-triumph of which Jupither from all of her heart can thank Tjelta and Conradi.”
“An extraordinarily well played and musical production of Little Eyolf.” Aftenposten
Tønsberg Blad writes:
“Grounded Peer Gynt”
“Kåre Conradi has been assigned the role of Peer, who is self-sufficient through thick and thin, in everything. He carries the role effortlessly all the way through to the last sentence. Peer is on stage almost constantly, and it’s a real tour de force. Conradi with Sylvia Salvesen (mother Aase) makes her moment of death one of the many emotional moments in the show. It is beautifully done through a little dance, and thankfully not in the sled as we’ve seen so many times before. Conradi acts so that we are spellbound by his storytelling, he lies so well that we believe in him. He is an amazing actor, musical to his fingertips.”
“Humor, insanity and slightly vulgar”
“Kåre Conradi drives game forward with great energy and unmatched enthusiasm, he engages and moves and makes us forget that we are slightly cramped, that Ibsen uses a long time getting his message across and that the summer is undeniably about to turn into fall.”
Telemark Arbeiderblad writes:
“Moving and lush Peer Gynt”
“Before the nearly three-hour performance is finished, it is clear that Peer in Kåre Conradi’s hardworking character has the ability to engage us once again.”
Vestfold Blad writes:
“Magnificent premiere of Peer Gynt”
“Kåre Conradi starred as Peer when Peer Gynt premiered on Wednesday night in front of a packed grandstand at Karljohansvern in Horten.”
“Kåre Conradi is an excellent actor and story teller. In English as well. (…) The show demonstrates that Conradi is an outstanding actor – there are abrupt turns in a wide field of expression, narrative theatre without being hollow or inflated theatrical. This is a showcase where Conradi gets to show his versatility, while we get served the story of Peer Gynt. Everything within an unpretentious hour, executed in very high quality.”
Jan E. Hansen, Aftenposten, on Kåre Conradi’s one-man-show Peer Gynt:
“He makes the words his own, not by applying his own signature and outstaging Ibsen’s, but by letting them live through an actor’s body and mind. He engages in the text both naturally and lyrically with a sensitive understanding for Peer and his fate; he identifies with the life-struggle and the characters, and doesn’t use his own humour and irony other than to spice up the short summaries when connecting directly with the audience. In other words, he doesn’t use Ibsen to expose his talent, but his talent to expose Ibsen.
Nancy Napper-Canter, writer for Broadway Baby:
“His obvious enthusiasm for this Norwegian classic makes him the perfect person to relay it; he’s a story-mediator as well as teller. (…) He reminded me of a lecturer – a talented, devoted lecturer, whose passion for his subject is palpable. Conradi’s research is obvious; he’s even been to several of the places where the play is set. It’s not difficult for Conradi to bring this material to life. Much of it, it seems, is his life.
With his warm voice and friendly demeanour, Conradi creates a nicely intimate atmosphere. (…) Despite his manifest expertise, Conradi’s not pompous with his interpretations. What’s more, Conradi doesn’t claim to have all the answers. It’s endearingly low-key, but there are also moments of drama. Frequently running around the stage, Conradi even climbs the lighting rig to emphasize Peer’s heightened emotion as he falls in lust. Energetic and compelling, Conradi’s a natural storyteller.”
Lesley Riddoch award winning journalist (Scotsman and Guardian), commentator and broadcaster writes:
“Kåre stars in a one man exploration of ‘Peer Gynt’, as you have never seen it before. This is the first production from the newly founded Norwegian Ibsen Company. Using just one prop and a mixture of monologue and soliloquy Kåre opens up Henrik Ibsen’s classic Norwegian tale in English to a whole new audience. I’ve seen this – a brilliant performance and perhaps the first time I both understood the Ibsen play AND the way it reflects Norwegian thinking.”