Norwegian Wood: Sheridan Morley on a Damp Ibsen, an Early Mamet and Shakespeare out of His Time. (Theatre)
Morley, Sheridan, New Statesman (1996)
Another week, another London theatre refurbished and reopened thanks to the loot from the Lottery and elsewhere, which has enabled and encouraged a vast range of playhouses to call in either the builders or a new artistic director. In this case, it is Michael Attenborough as the resident director, who has called in Trevor Nunn, until recently in charge of the National, to stage The Lady From the Sea. This production makes the best of the Almeida's original home; thankfully, the major changes only amount to more comfortable seating and an indoor foyer and bar.
Written in 1888 when Ibsen was living in Munich and clearly nostalgic for the fjords of Norway's west coast, The Lady From the Sea has always been a tricky one for actors and critics alike, since the entire drama hangs on one single decision made in the last act: I won't give it away, hut ask you to recall the airport scene in Casablanca.
Over here, there has been only one major revival in the postwar years, back in 1979, when the central role of Ellida was played by Vanessa Redgrave. A quarter-century later we get her daughter, Natasha Richardson, unmistakably a Redgrave from the tall, gangling stage presence to a voice that sounds like gravel run through honey.
However, for the play to work, and it was a triumph for Eleanor Duse a century or so ago, you need an extraordinary actress capable of suggesting a whole other life: but they don't teach how to be mesmeric at drama schools -- even to Redgraves. Ibsen pasted together a rather ramshackle plot to allow for a crucial debate about feminism, the rights of a wife within a marriage, and reasons for marriage itself. Written barely two years before Ibsen's best-known play, we can now see Ellida as a prototype for Hedda Gabler. Pam Gems's new version of The Lady From the Sea underlines its feminism but still doesn't really fix the problems of somebody who belongs to the sea rather than the land: the result is neither wet nor dry, just a little damp.
David Mamet found in his native Chicago a quick-fire dialect of the streets that had never before been used on stage. What he pioneered back in 1971, when he was barely 23, was a colloquial language that was still very new to the theatre. A Mamet speech can run for fewer than five words, at least one of them violent, crude or blasphemous; sometimes he manages all three. Hearing his dialogue and watching his characters in action is like finding yourself at the wrong end of a machine-gun. …