In this Shaw Festival production we have something all too 21st century: the deliberate dumbing down of a complex play so that it resembles something like a Reader’s Digest version of the original.
The Lady from the Sea by Henrik Ibsen. Adapted by Erin Shields. Directed by Meg Roe at the Court House Theatre, Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, CA, through September 13.
By Helen Epstein
I WAS SO psyched by the opportunity to see the infrequently produced The Lady from the Sea (1888) that I didn’t notice the press release line that read “By Henrik Ibsen, in a new version by Erin Shields.”
Ibsen’s plays, of course, have been “adapted” from the time he wrote them, and that can mean everything from operas and ballets to shortening, cutting, or changing key elements of the texts. In many countries at the turn of the 19th century, the ending of A Doll’s House was transformed to suit audiences who disapproved of or couldn’t believe that Nora was leaving husband, kids, and home. In some productions, instead of slamming the door behind her, she was made to reconsider, turn around, and re-open it. Most recently, Barrington Stage produced Arthur Miller’s adaptation of An Enemy of the People, shaped with an eye to the excesses of McCarthyism.
In this production of Ibsen at the Shaw Festival, we have something all too 21st century: the deliberate dumbing down of a complex play so that it resembles something like a Reader’s Digest version of the original. The five acts have been reduced to one, 90-minutes long, without intermission.
The Lady from the Sea is a blend of domestic realism, symbolism, myth, and folktale, a drama about the varieties of love, marriage and its alternatives for women, psychological obsession, free will, and the opposing attractions of land and sea. In this play, perhaps more than in any of his others, Ibsen prefigures Freud and the talking cure, devoting much of his attention to the relationship between an enlightened male doctor (as opposed to Hedda Gabler’s or Nora’s husband) and his deeply troubled wife.
The eight characters have lots to say about all of these themes, especially the all too real and problematic situation of European women in the 19th century. One of the many joys of Ibsen’s plays are his female characters, whom he modeled after women he knew and admired. Lady From the Sea has three excellent roles for women: Ellida Wangel (daughter of a light-house keeper, disturbed wife of a middle-aged physician, haunted by the sea and the memory of a seaman she loved years before); her step-daughter Bolette Wangel, who has been keeping house for Dr. Wangel, but longs to get out into the world and study; and her brash step-daughter Hilde Wangel, who is young enough to mock all the other characters. The University of Christiana (now Oslo) began admitting women six years before Ibsen wrote the play, and Bolette, unlike Nora, is allowed to have an education (albeit courtesy of the man who wishes to marry her).
The men have interesting and realistic roles too: Dr. Wangel, the decent middle-aged physician so enchanted by his sprite-like second wife that he builds her an arbor where she can dream to her heart’s content while his daughters manage the house and remain on the “verandah.” Bolette’s tutor Arnholm, a bachelor who for years has been secretly carrying a torch for Ellida and decides he wants to marry Bolette. The loquacious elderly Sunday painter Ballested, the self-absorbed young sculptor Lyngstrand, and the mythic seaman-stranger with whom Ellida fell in love (in this production, “the American”) round out the ensemble.
In the original, all these characters are realistic, multi-layered dramatis personae who have often mysterious, idiosyncratic ways of speaking and behaving. Scholars have traced some of the prototypes for Ellida to Ibsen’s own mother-in-law, who was known for her daily swims in the sea. At the same time, both Ellida and the seaman draw on aspects of the “merfolk,” resonant and seductive archetypes for Northern Europeans, deeply embedded in Norwegian culture.
Erin Shields’ version of the play, described in the program as a distillation, flattens out all this complexity, making the characters caricatures, and turning Ibsen’s nuanced language into soap opera. Meg Roe has seen fit to direct the script almost as though it were a French farce, with actors running on and off the stage and delivering their lines with a bright, snappy, mechanical precision, as though they are on amphetamines.
The Shaw Festival actors are a well-trained group and perform their roles the way the director and playwright conceived them. Unfortunately, while this production sets the plot in bold relief and makes the complex relationships between the characters crystal clear, it loses a lot of what makes Ibsen Ibsen. I wondered if the play had been written as a student assignment in a Playwriting or Theater 101 class.
I also wondered what the set designer and director were thinking when they placed an enormous gray boulder in the middle of the thrust stage. When Ellida first clambers naked out of the sea and onto the boulder (accompanied by ominous contemporary music) and freezes in place, it brings to mind the iconic “Little Mermaid” statue by Edvard Eriksen, at the Langelinie promenade in Copenhagen, Denmark.
Hans Christian Andersen (and the Disney people) drew on the same myth as Ibsen, but made something very different from the story. The Lady from the Sea moves between Ellida’s arbor and Dr. Wangel’s verandah; land and sea; Ibsen’s vision of an obsessive, passionate love and a tamer, marital variety. The fjords and the sea — their sight, sound and feel — are vital to the play, yet the only water in this production is some lame video footage.
The enormous rock is like an elephant in the room: it takes up center stage, forces the actors to perform around it and occasionally climb onto it with various degrees of ease and obvious discomfort. A more innovative lighting director might possibly have made the big stone dramatic but, as it is designed and used here, it is merely dull.
All in all, the Shaw Festival’s Lady from the Sea is an enormous disappointment. Ibsen deserves better.
Helen Epstein is co-founder of Plunkett Lake Press, which has recently published Hans Heiberg’s Ibsen: A Portrait of the Artist and Joan Templeton’s Ibsen’s Women.