Donmar Warehouse, London ****
Past productions of The Lady from the Sea have often portrayed Ellida, Ibsen’s eponymous protagonist, as half-mad with barely comprehensible yearnings.
Is it for a Flying Dutchman type stranger with whom she once made a tryst? Is she herself real or per presence merely a symbol of darker, deeply embedded Freudian fears and desires?
Being Ibsen, it is a bit of both and in Elinor Cook’s excellent new version, she succeeds after an initial sense of disorientation – white characters in a Caribbean setting speaking with a characteristic Ibsenesque sensibility – in grounding and giving fresh impetus to what has in the past occasionally taken on a whimsical air.
The grounding comes in Kwame Kwei-Armah’s decision to transplant the play to 1950s Caribbean and in the casting of Nikki Amuka-Bird as Doctor Wangel’s second wife, Ellida giving her racial difference added weight as the family outsider and to her feelings of restlessness.
It allows the whole drama to take on new, fresh implications – vividly and foremost the shedding of colonial shackles but in the present febrile climate, and I suspect quite unexpectedly, comment on male power and sexual abuse.
There is a crucial scene towards the end between Doctor Wangel’s elder daughter, Bolette (an extraordinarily touching, affecting performance from `newcomer’ Helena Wilson) and Tom McKay’s former tutor Arnholm which strikes right at the heart of present debates.
Arnholm is an older man, returned at the request of Dr Wangel to discover the source of Ellida’s distancing of herself from him.
But Arnholm in turn begins to see Bolette in a new light and in the most exquisitely nuanced and carefully drawn exchange, Arnholm both expresses his love for Bolette and his desire to help her to fulfil herself in the world by gaining a proper education, a place at Oxford no less.
His approach, tentative, sensitive is a perfect example of emotional/sexual rectitude – an offer of equality which Wilson’s tender, unsure and torn-by-family-loyalty Bolette is given space to accept – a forerunner to the conclusion in which Amuka-Bird’s Ellida too, finally wrenches that freedom to choose from Finbar Lynch’s kindly Doctor Wangel – a moment that had the Donmar’s younger audience nonetheless yelping with delight, recognition and acknowledgement.
In Ellida’s cry to her husband, `I want to be seen’, is unlocked a whole history and movement for personal as well as political freedom and independence. As there is in the extraordinary, tear-pricking moment as Wangel and Ellida throw their wedding rings into Tom Scutt’s watery lagoon and commit themselves to trying to live together differently and equally.
Congratulations then to Kwei-Armah for a production of depth and importance, a radical re-awakening, even if directed sometimes at too hectic a lick!
But it is Amuka-Bird who gives the production its heart and soul whilst there are also sharp, fully-rounded portraits from Ellie Bamber as Bolette’s pert younger sister, Hilde and Jonny Holden’s blinkered young sculptor, Lyngstrand.
Jim Findley’s Ballestred, too, adds a touch of necessary atmosphere never letting us forget about island myths or the fact that to the tourists who visit, the Caribbean signifies undiluted paradise. But for Ellida and its many thousands of inhabitants over the past centuries, the production seems to be saying, it has represented, in part, a prison, a place to escape from.
In Ibsen’s terms, that would have meant stifling social conformity, and the repressive role of women in society. In 1950s West Indies, it meant escape of a completely other sort: to the Mother Country.
That Ellida decides to stay, given a free choice to do so, is a symbol, finally, of hope. As too, the response of the Donmar’s new young audiences. Great.
The Lady from the Sea
By Henrik Ibsen,
In a new version by Elinor Cook
Ballestred: Jim Findley
Bolette: Helena Wilson
Lyngstrand: Jonny Holden
Hilde: Ellie Bamber
Doctor Wangel: Finbar Lynch
Arnholm: Tom McKay
Ellida: Nikki Amuka-Bird
The Stranger: Jake Fairbrother
Director: Kwame Kwei-Armah
Designer: Tom Scutt
Lighting Designer: Lee Curran
Sound Designer: Emma Laxton
Composer: Michael Bruce
Casting: Alastair Coomer CDG
Literal Translation: Charlotte Barslund
Resident Assistant Director: Lynette Linton
First perf of this production of The Lady from the Sea at the Donmar Warehouse Theatre, London, Oct 12, 2017. Runs to Dec 2, 2017
Review published on this site, Oct 21, 2017