Review: Ellida at La Mama

21 May 2018

Laurence Strangio’s latest production, Ellida, brings Henrik Ibsen’s text The Lady from the Sea to The La Mama Courthouse Theatre in the form of a new translation by May-Brit Akerholt. The text follows the journey of Ellida, a woman caught between her domestic family life and her desire to sail the seas with her mysterious former lover. Meanwhile, Ellida’s stepdaughters grapple with similar notions of love and freedom. While Ibsen’s texts are intrinsically linked to the style of Naturalism, this production shirks this aesthetic, making the bold choice to work within Bertolt Brecht’s philosophy of Epic Theatre. The production draws on almost every trick in the Brechtian book. Characters break into song mid-scene, set changes happen in plain sight, and actors remain on stage when not actively involved in scenes. As a result, the audience is never allowed to get comfortable and complacent: instead they must constantly reflect on the Norwegian story that’s being told on stage.

The set is fantastic. I want to personally high-five designer Mattea Davies for creating one of the most innovative sets I’ve seen in years. Using only a seating bank, artificial flowers, and piles of draped green blankets, Davies creates a structure that is somewhere between a Norwegian mountain and a pillow fort. On top of this, Strangio’s blocking makes excellent use of the levels of this vertiginous playground.

The mountainous set is navigated by a cast of seven actors who drift in and out of a complex weave of romantic relationships. Stand out performances come form Meg Spencer and Esther Myles who pair beautifully as the adolescent stepdaughters Bolette and Hilde. Hearing these actresses speak Akerholt/Ibsen’s Norwegian script in their natural Australian accents is equal parts moving, funny, and surreal. It’s bizarre, but like, in a cool Brechtian way.

However, unlike many Brechtian productions, this one is not designed to incite rioting in the streets. Brecht’s Epic Theatre was developed in order to mobilise audiences and turn the theatre into a forum for political ideas. Given this history, I was expecting the production to take Ibsen’s text and transform it into something new: something that spoke to our current socio-political climate. However, in reality, Ellida is a much tamer production: it still feels like an old Norwegian play. At times, the text touches on ideas of gender politics; however, it shies away from making any bold statements. Consequently, Ellida is the kind of production you can bring your Nanna to. This is not necessarily a bad thing. You and your Nan will probably have a really nice time. However, throughout the evening, I constantly found myself wishing the production would go just that little bit further into the terrain of the political.

That being said, the whole thing is pretty. It is just so, so pretty. The language is beautiful, the set is stunning, and the performances are solid. If you’re a big Ibsen fan: go. If you’re a set-design nerd: go. If you’re looking for a pleasant and dreamy way to spend an evening: go. Just remember to leave your riot gear at home.

Ellida runs until the 27th of May

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