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Thursday, 16 November 2017

Heinz-Uwe Haus directs Ibsen's "The Lady from the Sea" at the National Theatre Cyprus, Nicosia

Renowned theatres such as the National Theatre in London have productions in their repertory that fall way short, or at least somewhat short, of the highest expectations rightfully associated with them. In their recent Salome, most of the stage and most of the actors were in semi-darkness throughout—no chance of seeing faces. The subtitles for the text spoken in Hebrew, visible on several monitors placed across the theatre, were so small and the monitors so far away from the audience that spectators would have needed binoculars to be able to read the subtitles. A recent production of Hedda Gabler, with star director Ivo van Hove and star actors Ruth Wilson and Rafe Spall, was impressive enough but suffered from inconsistencies of narrative that could be correlated to the production’s minimalist three-week rehearsal period. Over the past few years, several West End theatres have enjoyed long runs of productions by Mischief Theatre Company, such as The Play that Goes Wrong, The Comedy about a Bank Robbery and Peter Pan Goes Wrong. Compared with comedy by Ayckbourn, or farce by Ray Cooney, these are worthy slapstick comedies for the amateur market. The question arises whether there is nothing better available for the West End, even if audiences are obviously willing to pay hefty ticket prices?

Heinz-Uwe Haus
With these thoughts in mind, I think it is necessary to celebrate good and great theatre thoroughly. Such as the production of The Lady from the Sea by Henrik Ibsen at the National Theatre in Cyprus, Nicosia, which opened on 11 November 2017 and is still running until 30 December this year. The play is presented in Greek, directed by German director Heinz-Uwe Haus, who has a long history of productions in Cyprus, going back to his 1975 production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle.

As I argued in my post on Ostermeier’s 2005 production of Hedda Gabler, Ibsen provides the blueprint for excellent story-telling. Thus, a director who recognises and trusts that blueprint has the chance of delivering a theatre production that engages the audience’s emotions, wit, imagination, intellect and visual senses in a well-told story. Such a story will have an abundance of nuances and detail that combine organically into a cogent whole, and makes full sense across the play’s plot and the timeframe of that plot.

The main auditorium at the Cyprus Theatre Organisation
Haus does trust the author, and indeed an abundance of nuance and detail combines into a captivating story unfolding on the stage, even for audiences, I dare say, who do not understand Greek, like myself. The set represents an open, wide, spacious landscape, with movable platforms and panels, as well as entrance arches of different width and height. The image of the sea is created by the company of actors holding and undulating a large sheet of cloth. The lighting design demonstrates that light need not be dim to create atmosphere—here the light creates mood, and enhances emotion while it is possible to see all characters, and especially their faces, clearly at all times even from the back rows. At the beginning and end of the production, as well as the transitions between Acts, music by Michalis Christodoulidis, composed specifically for the production, adds meaningfully to the atmosphere.

Ntinos Lyras (Wangel)
Wangel comes across as the thoroughly well-meaning provincial, local doctor, right from when he enters the scene for the first time with his small, worn doctor’s bag. He has achieved a certain natural level of authority in his community, but as a rural physician he is by far not wealthy, also demonstrated by the suit he wears, once elegant but now worn like his bag. He is good-natured and really loves his children and his second wife, Ellida. She is much younger than him, and the production finds several ways of conveying her relation to the sea. She is at the centre of a precisely choreographed sequence of movements under the cloth representing the sea, where she rolls around the stage in joyful abandon. Her existence “on land” is also related to the element of water in her physicality, the fluidity of her movements. She is hardly ever not moving, and restless in that sense, but those movements are like quicksilver, fluid, flowing, wave-like, not sudden, abrupt or jerky. Her physicality is thus in stark contrast to that of Wangel, her husband, who is stiff not only from age, but from the set and established conventions and routines characteristic of his life. 

From the Website of Cyprus Theatre Organisation
Wangel is worried about Ellida’s yearning for the sea. He does not understand that yearning, because he does not feel it himself. Nevertheless, he does not judge, let alone blame Ellida for it—she does not understand it either, intellectually, she can only describe it vaguely and poetically, and through her body. He seeks for ways for both of them to understand her better. What she describes or explains may startle him, which is obvious in his intonation, but the voice never carries aggression or confrontation. This explains the level of trust she obviously has in him, despite the problems that have beset their relationship. On the basis of that trust, she can, and does, talk to him openly about everything.

Stela Fyrogeni (Ellida)
 It is the trust Ellida has in, and demonstrates towards, Wangel, that allows Wangel, at the end of the play, to make the important step of going beyond all conventions and norms, all the routine that has given him a lot of strength across his life, and to release Ellida, his beloved wife, from her marriage vow. The power ratio remains part of the convention: it is the “weak” wife who has to ask for her freedom, and it is in the power of the “strong” man to give that freedom or not. However, the power shifts, because once set free, Ellida becomes the strong woman, in whose power it is now to choose between the Stranger and Wangel. At that moment, in terms of power, the men are at her mercy.

Ellida’s liberation, and her free decision to stay with Wangel, also mean liberation for Wangel—both his decision to allow freedom to Ellida, and his happiness when she chooses him, mean stages of liberation for Wangel, and in Haus’s production, that liberation is again reflected in his physicality.

Sadly for both Wangel and Ellida, Ellida has not yet been able to develop a relationship built on trust with her step-daughters, younger Hilde and older Bolette. They, in turn, have not yet warmed to their step-mother, even after three years with her. They do not understand her, and she is too busy with herself and her relationship with Wangel, for her to be able to develop her role as step-mother.
Elena Chatziayksenti (Bolette)
Bolette is the older sister, and plays that role in the family; she keeps telling Hilde off, to no avail and to her own frustration, has gotten used to being spat at, and her reaction to it is more weary than angry. She runs the household, with little help from her younger sister, who has learnt well to do jobs she has been asked to do badly so as not to be asked again. Just as Hilde shows her suppressed anger in the stomping up the stage, Bolette can hardly contain, physically, her excitement at the prospect of liberation from the restricted life she has, the prospect opened up by her former tutor, Arnholm, taking her on journeys across the world. In this production, her decision to accept Arnholm’s proposal of marriage comes quickly, and it is not as painful as it could be directed and played. She will get him to become more flexible and less rigid (and in that rigidity slightly ridiculous). A quick, spontaneous and very intense kiss on the mouth, which she initiates and to which he responds fully, and with happy surprise, completes the impression of a good match. 

Styliana Ioannoy (Hilde)
Hilde is portrayed in part as a stroppy teenager, youthfully cheerful, but at the same time prone to moods—when she fights with her sister, she tends to spit in her face, and on one occasion she playfully hops from the ramp to the back of the stage with a ferocity that is indicative of the anger under the surface. 

Hilde is youthfully flirting with Lyngstrand, and he with her. A check-up by Dr Wangel had revealed that Lyngstrand is ill beyond recovery, in the long run. The way he was presented in this production does not dwell on his frailty: on one occasion he is exhausted from a long walk, but that is cause for amusement for the other characters, and the audience, rather than cause for obvious concern.

The stranger, who represents, foregrounds and personifies Ellida’s relationship with the sea, is a bearded sailor—more of a projection surface for Ellida’s imagination than in any way a superhuman creature. He is certainly not endowed with the charisma of a Flying Dutchman. Ballested is an established artist-painter, the kind Lyngstrand might aspire to become, with artistic inspiration, well-meaning, well-intentioned, but of a provincial, if harmless, narrow-mindedness.

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