One day last year, Joely Richardson was taken for lunch by Stephen Unwin. The artistic director of the Rose Theatre in Kingston, Surrey, wanted to discuss a role he had in mind for her – hoping to lure her back to British theatre after all the time she had spent on US TV (Nip/Tuck) and in the movies (Anonymous, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo).
"It quickly became clear," recalls Unwin, in the Rose's rehearsal room beside the Thames, "that the one I'd chosen wasn't going to be the right role. So we talked about what we might do instead. And I said, 'Well, there's Ibsen's The Lady from the Sea, but you probably won't want to do that."
"And so I said, 'Why would I not want to do it?'" Richardson says, taking up the story at the end of her third week of rehearsals for Unwin's revival of Ibsen's play. "Genuine question. And I think Stephen hummed and hah-ed in an embarrassed fashion. And I said, 'Oh, you mean the family reasons?'"
Hanging not-quite-spoken in the air are the facts that shadowed Unwin at the lunch. In the 1970s, Richardson's mother, Vanessa Redgrave, made a celebrated Ellida, the married Norwegian woman at the centre of the play, who is still in love with a sailor who disappeared years before. Still more sensitively, Richardson's sister Natasha, who died three years ago after a skiing accident, played Ellida at London's Almeida theatre in 2003; it was one of her most praised performances.
"I said to Stephen that I could see that it could be perceived as a stupid move, because why would you put yourself up for those comparisons when they're all there and endlessly regurgitated anyway? Then I thought, 'You know what? This is a great role and I want to have a crack at her.' My job is to blank out all the baggage. The baggage, with all due respect, is not mine. It's other people's. I just wanted to have a go."
Malcolm Storry, who plays Ellida's husband Dr Wangel, adds: "Any classical part worth having – there's going to be a history." That's true, but acting dynasties bring a special charge to casting. There is a frisson for audiences in knowing that Richardson is now following her mother and her sister. Does that not inform her performance? "Well," says Richardson, now 47, "I think it's highly unlikely that many people in our audience will have seen my mother's production 30 years ago." Her voice slows. "I think more people will have seen my sister's."
But some veteran theatre critics will have seen both. "Ha! And how exciting will that be? 'She's not half as good!' Or 'She looks quite like her.' But look, if you think of The Cherry Orchard or A Doll's House, say, I think I've seen at least seven productions of those in the last few years. At least with this, it's only done every 10 years or so because it's so difficult." Does she ever ask her mother for advice about a role? "I ask her and she asks me. It's very much two ways." So have they talked about Ellida? "In this case, no. She's in America at the moment. But it would be a bit too weird – if it's a part she actually played."
Ibsen was 60 when he wrote The Lady from the Sea in 1888. The writer had been in self-imposed exile from Norway: dismayed by his failure to make a mark in theatre there, he had, for almost three decades, lived in Italy and then Germany. He had achieved literary fame but also notoriety, through such plays as 1879's A Doll's House and, two years later, Ghosts. These works dealt with material – venereal disease, for example, and female independence – considered inappropriate for drama at the time.
As he prepared to write The Lady from the Sea, Ibsen decided to return to Norway; he also decided on a change of tone. "Now I shall write no more controversial plays," he pledged in a letter to a friend. Ibsen and his wife had missed the sea and so settled in the coastal town of Molde. The rejection of contentious themes resulted in a domestic drama in which Ellida's sexual rejection of her husband and her obsession with the lost sailor is steered towards an uplifting conclusion.
Unwin directed five Ibsen plays during his previous posting at English Touring Theatre and has become established as an Ibsen specialist; he translated The Lady from the Sea himself. He is fond of saying, not merely to provoke Chekhovians, that Ibsen is the second greatest dramatist ever. Halfway through rehearsals, though, his actors are questioning the idea that they are delivering the words of Shakespeare's understudy: Ibsen is prone to scenes and speeches of bald exposition.
"We're struggling with that a bit," admits Storry. "The way someone will say, 'And then you got engaged?' And you reply, 'Yes.' And they say, 'And why did you get engaged?'" Unwin rises like an attorney defending his client. "The trick is to find the pressure behind the line," he says. "Why are they saying this now?"
There are broadly two strains in Ibsen: the poetic-symbolic, typified by the verse drama Peer Gynt; and the social realism of, say, John Gabriel Borkman, a play about a disgraced banker. As a portrait of relationships, with layers of mythology and hints of the supernatural, The Lady from the Sea draws on both strains of Ibsen.
This, agrees Richardson, creates difficulties: "A friend who's a child psychologist read it and said, 'It's very, very symbolic and how do you create symbols as an actress?' The answer is it's very difficult." Ellida can be seen as half-woman, half-mermaid, forced to choose between domestic stability and the dangerous strangeness represented by the sea. "Although she's folkloric, I have to play her as a real woman. But this was the time of Freud and Jung, and I certainly think the sea represents the subconscious."
The play was also written in the time of Edvard Munch, the Norwegian painter famous for his agonised portrait The Scream. Eight years after Ibsen's play simultaneously premiered in Norway and Germany, Munch also made a painting called The Lady from the Sea, which shows a bare-breasted mermaid paddling in waves that lap a phallic lighthouse. A copy hangs on the rehearsal room wall but Unwin decided against such an insistent erection in the background of their production.
Ibsen has become more popular in British theatre, partly because so many of his plays have an easy relevance to contemporary events: Borkman illuminates the banking crisis, Ghosts deals with sexually transmitted disease, An Enemy of the People with a cover-up. Because of this, there has been a tendency in UK productions to Anglicise or universalise the action. However, with Scandinavian culture currently so hot – Stieg Larsson and Jo Nesbo in the bestseller lists, Borgen and The Killing on TV – might there now be a temptation to emphasise the Norwegian setting?
"I think," says Storry, "you have to get that sense of a small place within a small country. I keep thinking of the massacre in Norway last year and how it affected simply everybody."
"We're certainly not going to have Scandinavian accents," says Unwin.
"You know what?" adds Richardson. "At the company lunch, we decided we are going to do one run-through in rehearsal in Norwegian accents – just for fun." And she laughs loudly and merrily.
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