Review of The Lady from the Sea by Thomas-Zanon Larcher and Jules Wright, Wapping Project

The last exhibition to be organised at the Wapping Project in the Wapping Power Station is a collaborative and contemporary take on Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s play The Lady from the Sea in photographic essay and installation form by Thomas-Zanon Larcher and Jules Wright; the latter directed this dramatic play by Ibsen in London and at the National Theatre in Oslo approximately a decade before the millennium. Coinciding with the closure of the breath-taking venue, the exhibition isn’t only poignant because it is one of the most engaging and surreal photographic installations I have seen to date, but also because it celebrates the 125th anniversary of the play Ibsen wrote in 1888.

Ibsen’s The Lady from the Sea centres on the female figure Ellida, the daughter of a lighthouse keeper, who loves the sea. Ellida, female version of the Old Norse name Elliði meaning, “fast sailing ship of uncertain origin”, is a spot-on name for this lead character as she is torn between two men; her husband Doctor Wangel and her sailor-lover from years ago. Stuck in the bosom of a love triangle, Ellida, a strong-headed yet emotional woman full of will power and endurance against the difficulties posed by the geography is played by Lianna Fowler. Doctor Wangel is portrayed by Angus Wright and the sailor-lover, vaguely introduced as the “stranger”, by Patrick O’Brien.

The photo-cinematic tale, shot entirely on location in and around Longyearbyen, a town north of the Arctic Circle, is truly engaging as soon as the audience enters the exhibition space. Walking down the metal staircase to the night-black area, the visitor is confronted by gravel. Dogs are barking and it is impossible not to think that one of them might jump out from the ultimately dark environs, except for the light emanating from the three looped companion videos reflected on the ivory-coloured tiles providing a perfect backdrop for the imagery.

Entering the wooden shack in the middle of the space and sitting down on the blanketed bench brings over a sensation of goose bumps and eeriness. It’s damp and cold just as one might expect from a night in a small northern town. As the sand on the ground of the wooden shack runs seamlessly into the screen it is to easy to forget the passing of the time. Utterly lost in thought and overcome by the surrealistic atmosphere created by the sound system and northern décor, the tale pulls the viewer deep into its isolated core.

Transported to the setting of Ibsen’s play through a contemporary understanding of design, the blue of the sky and the ocean is conveyed in the walls and curtains of the interior spaces. Billy Cowie’s soundtrack fills the ingenious and tightly improvised photographic stills presenting a full array of human emotion; anger, jealousy, envy, disappointment, loneliness, despair, love, lust and desire. The soundtrack fully represents the way Arctic winds blow with utmost force and how the unspoken dialogues of actors come to life through the complete isolation of speech. I for one do not think that the 15 minute photographic tale could have been exercised any better in film form; it is certainly all the more effective because of the skill and experience involved in the montage of the stills. A story can sometimes convey so much more when it is dialogue-free as the viewer is challenged to take in more from the visuality of the work. Larcher and Wright have certainly succeeded in creating a once in a lifetime experience with this highly alluring collaboration.

The Wapping Project situated by the Wapping Wall closes its doors to art-lovers never to open again on 22 December, 2013.

Hande Eagle

1. LFTS Barentsburg Swimmingpool, courtesy The Wapping Project.