Natasha Richardson makes a sultry, shadowy entrance in Trevor Nunn’s revival of “The Lady From the Sea,” but her appearance is nothing compared to that singular voice you know you have encountered somewhere before. Listen hard, and you can hear the very particular cadences — breath patterns, even — of Richardson’s mother, Vanessa Redgrave, who, as if to compound the feeling of deja entendu, triumphed a quarter-century ago in the same part, Ibsen’s Ellida Wangel, that her daughter is currently playing at the handsomely refurbished Almeida. (Redgrave performed the play in 1976 at Circle in the Square in Manhattan and then, more famously, at north London’s Roundhouse in 1979.)
Like mother like daughter, then? Not entirely, I’m afraid, though my vague memory of Redgrave’s Broadway turn as the incipiently mad Ellida suggests the fault may lie nearly as fully with the play. Get a gesture wrong or tilt the emotional equilibrium toward the unsubtle, and Ibsen frequently risks melodrama, a pitfall that Nunn’s almost overripely atmospheric staging — this director’s Almeida debut — cannot avoid. You want to applaud Nunn’s careful attention to the shifting moods of a narrative that at times resembles “A Doll’s House” given a happy ending in the celebration of choice that finally sets Ellida free. (Whereas Nora slams doors, Ellida, metaphorically speaking, seems to open them.) But Pam Gems’ new version of the play as often as not exacerbates what is florid about a piece that is already perilously close to self-parody. By the time Ellida’s sexless older husband, Wangel (a starchy John Bowe), tells his young, restless wife that she is “like the sea,” some in the audience could be forgiven for wanting to jump ship.
A different translation might play against the soap operatics that threaten their own shipwreck: “It’s too awful to be said,” for instance, or, even more commonplace, “I’ve never really known you, have I, Ellida?” asks Wangel. “I’m your husband; I want you.” But the fact remains that for all its talk of “the ineffable (and) unobtainable,” “Lady From the Sea” is about the all-too-recognizable tidal pull of sex: the struggle of the past vs. the present, here embodied by Ellida’s childless life with Wangel vs. the erotic hold of the mysterious Stranger (Eoin McCarthy), who emerges from the stirring waters of Ellida’s subconscious to lead her toward some unnamed land.
Richardson wastes no time presenting a woman in heat, the furtive apparition she cuts at the opening subsequently giving way to a barefoot, bedraggled presence whose speech is punctuated by panting. Ellida’s hysteria is the sort with which Freud would have had a field day: This lady from the sea inhabits a limbo in which longing and loss have merged as one. Is it any wonder that her husband — a doctor, of all things — should sneeringly employ the play’s title to describe his spouse? For a medic, Dr. Wangel lacks what one might call a bedside manner, insofar as the last thing Ellida wants to do with him is go to bed.
The play builds to a conclusion that defies even the finest directors (Nunn at his best is certainly one), with Ellida literally pulled this way and that, while the Stranger announces rather self-evidently, “I am in you, inside you.” Amid all the heavy breathing, one is increasingly aware of the lack of real sexual impetus driving the production: Richardson’s fairly strenuous radiance seems externally applied rather than felt — she wears her smile like a frieze — while McCarthy (late of “Amy’s View”) makes no impression at all in a part that all but cries out for Liam Neeson. Boasting a putative sensual elan seemingly defined by much tossing of hair, Nunn’s “Lady From the Sea” is of a piece with the David Thacker-helmed “Anna Christie” of more than a decade ago. That’s the last play Richardson performed in London before a far superior rendition of the same text led her on to New York and her properly distinguished Broadway career.
The staging seems far more comfortable with its equivalent (or not) subplots, with Claudie Blakley and Tim McInnerny in particularly good form as a couple who strike up an alliance that comes at its own price. (One could go to town contrasting the various notions of freedom that are held by this play’s women.) And Benedict Cumberbatch, playing a sculptor given over to the sort of polite good cheer that can only bode ill, makes something quietly tragic out of Lyngstrand, who remarks “Everyone’s pairing off” with the awareness of someone wise to the feeling that he is being written out of his own play.
Those couplings — however motivated they are by convenience rather than affection — are always gracefully accomplished on an elegant Rob Howell set that rises up and dips in the best tradition of the Olivier auditorium at Nunn’s recent National Theater home. And whether it’s the sound of passing steamers or chirping birds (the invaluable John Leonard devised the soundscape), Nunn gives ample ambient weight to everything about the play but the brooding mystery that makes it tick, whereby a human “mermaid” surrounded by specters, at last, and against the odds, learns to see.