Jules Wright and Thomas Zanon-Larcher did not intend for 'The Lady from the Sea' to be their swan song at the Wapping Project, the defunct hydraulic power station Wright has been running as an art-event-dining space since the 1990s. The decision to close the space and concentrate on the satellite gallery Wapping Bankside happened suddenly this autumn, after the bulk of the shoot had wrapped (after a ten-year germination), but this contemporary reenactment of the bleak 1888 play by Henrik Ibsen is a stunning farewell.
The duo have transformed the already damp, murky hall into the harsh terrain of Longyearbyen, Norway, the Svalbard Island community that was the setting for their redux. They've turned down the thermostat, spread actual permafrost across the floor and built replicas of the ramshackle wood huts they encountered up north. It even smells remarkably of reindeer. Piped in is an Arctic gale of a soundtrack by Billy Cowie.
This all lays the groundwork for Zanon-Larcher's ambitious photography essay, captured over ten days in Norway last summer. A hodgepodge of screens near the entrance run a companion video (filmed in near darkness just last month) on a loop. But the still shots, broadcast in the frigid hut, are the ultimate attraction, viewed from a bench piled with blankets.
The running time is 15 minutes but even the least patient viewers will stay the course, despite the absence of movement and dialogue, and despite the chill. Zanon-Larcher - with mise-en-scene by Wright - has portrayed a Nordic love triangle inspired by Ibsen's plot (aging doctor; young, lonely wife; handsome interloper) against the tundra fjord.
'People say, "That's absolutely amazing," but it's really so much more than that,' says Wright, clearly beguiled by the extraordinary landscape. 'Thomas comes from the Italian Alps and he's always had an obsession with snow and the north. And, well, this is about as far north as you can go.'
The fact that Zanon-Larcher has shot the action - the romantic tussles, the mushing huskies, even the love-making - on still film while the static panoramas get the celluloid treatment is a product of his confidence as a storyteller. The epic project 'is conceived and presented like a film,' says Wright, who, in turn, directed it as she would a play at her old stomping ground, the Royal Court theatre. The characters' torment translates through their posture and their anguished, forlorn expressions beneath the heavy, soupy skies. The folky layered wardrobe and blue-filtered Nordic interiors are compelling in their own way (according to Wright, the clothing is largely the actors' own, and the furnishings 'were exactly as we found them').
The final frame, incongruous in black and white, lingers as you struggle to rouse yourself. 'It's a memory of what life was,' says Wright. An apt metaphor for the gallery itself.