The Lady From The Sea is ultimately a compelling experiment in need of refinement. A drastic re-imaging of Henrik Ibsen's lesser-known text of the same name, the production is bold, adventurous and, at times, quite affecting but too often lacks the precision and discipline necessary to execute its ambitious aims.
The performance combines the work of India's internationally-respected Abhinaya Theatre Company with that of Australian post-minimalist instrumental ensemble Topology and, according to director Jyothish M G, was conceived as a dream-like, meditative contemplation on freedom and restraint. Unfortunately, the production doesn't manage to sustain such a dynamic.
The overall theme of the work's experimentation is minimalism. Abhinaya have pared back the Dickensian complexity of Ibsen's original narrative to three characters – a husband, a wife and her former fiancée. The development of these three characters, meanwhile, oscillates around a single conflict – should the wife forsake her husband to return to her fiancée?
The rendering of said conflict is similarly restrained. Outside of two perspex boxes and a foundation of sand, there is no set. Costumes are, for the most part, robes and visual motifs (the fiancée, for example, depicted through three physical performers embodying three floating disembodied eyes).
Even the actors' performances adhere to such constraints.
Each scene is little more than a slow and ponderous exchange of dialogue (in subtitled Malayalam) augmented by minimal physical movements. Throughout the entire production, the only concessions to extravagance are three multimedia screens (cycling through floating animations and motifs) and Topology's score (performed live in the background).
It isn't hard to see the potential in Abhinaya's approach. There is an elemental fury buried within the piece's stately progression – from the unnerving assurance of the former lover's disembodied voice through to the gradual disintegration of the wife and husband's marriage – and the cavernous, hypnotic multimedia backdrops cannot help but lend an existential desperation to proceedings.
Unfortunately, it isn't enough. The collaborators ultimately don't take their concept far enough for it to work – Jyothish's vision of a meditative reading of Ibsen's narrative ironically proving too cluttered and imprecise to really function as such. Topology's score, for example, is – while undeniably gorgeous – entirely too lush and animated to suit such restrained aesthetics.
The multimedia is similarly far too busy. At any given moment, a series of (more often than not, quite naff) images is cycling through the background of an otherwise sedate vista. Instead of conjuring up images of dreamspace, such a contrast of dynamics implies that even The Lady From The Sea's director doesn't have faith his approach can sustain audience interest.
The actress charged with the role of the wife simply adopts an inappropriate reading of her character. Contorted with angst and despair for the entirety of the piece, the wife is a character of such melodramatic persuasion as to jar against the meditative backdrop of the piece. Furthermore, her lack of dimension ensures her character arc eventually proves utterly unbelievable.
All of these flaws, meanwhile, exacerbate and are exacerbated by the inconsistency of Abhinaya's vision for the piece. By cluttering his work with Topology's score and multimedia, Jyothish M G too often transforms his promising and creative concept from patient and otherworldly to dull and melodramatic.
Close to greatness – but just falls short.
Abhinaya Theatre Company & Topology present
The Lady From The Sea
Venue: Powerhouse Theatre | Brisbane Powerhouse
Dates: 24 – 26 Feb, 2012
Tickets: $30 | Concession $25
Part of the 2012 World Theatre Festival