Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Theatre review: The Lady From The Sea

The Lady From The Sea is Ellida (Nikki Amuka-Bird,) second wife to Dr Wangel (Finbar Lynch.) After an initially happy marriage, Ellida has become distant in recent years, and her husband suspects she has unresolved feelings for a lover from her past. In a turn of events that reflects Ibsen's ahead-of-his-time fascination with psychology, the doctor decides on a radical cure, inviting her former suitor Arnholm (Tom McKay) to visit. Wangel's hunch is correct but he's miscalculated: Arnholm isn't the man Ellida still has feelings for. Instead her unfinished business is with a sailor, her first love at the age of sixteen, who vowed they'd be bound forever before running away to escape a murder charge. She believes he's somehow found out that she's married someone else, and her depression comes from feeling she's betrayed him.

Indeed, twenty years too late, The Stranger (Jake Fairbrother) does return to offer Ellida an opportunity and an ultimatum - 24 hours to decide if she wants to stay with her husband or run away with him.


Adaptor Elinor Cook and director Kwame Kwei-Armah have relocated the action to the Caribbean in the 1950s, with Arnholm becoming a dashing, injured World War II veteran, and Wangel's daughters from his first marriage Bolette (Helena Wilson) and Hilde (Ellie Bamber) having a taste of a future that isn't necessarily bound to marriage and family, while still staying to tend their father's house or of a sense of duty. The new setting does make it seem a bit unlikely that the locals would have given Ellida her titular nickname because she swims first thing every morning - I can't imagine a dip before breakfast is that unusual if you live on a tropical island.


It does, though, give designer Tom Scutt the opportunity to give the actors a striking set to create their beautiful prison on - a huge fishtank jutting into the stage, which they can sometimes look to as a distant shore, or climb onto in the scenes where they actually visit the beach. Ibsen was apparently inspired to write The Lady From The Sea by an old folk song about a mermaid, and there's hints of something a bit dreamlike to it - when Ellida and The Stranger reunite they slip into Jamaican accents, as if turning back into past versions of themselves, and Amuka-Bird's performance in general has something ethereal about it - but for the most part Kwei-Armah's production feels rooted in reality.


I generally enjoyed this, particularly for what I usually find to like about Ibsen - his surprisingly modern attitudes to women's rights and human psychology. I do have reservations though: I haven't seen The Lady From The Sea before so don't know if it's usually one of Ibsen's shorter plays or whether Cook has cut quite a lot. I do like a relatively short running time but the subplots about Bolette and Hilde and their relationships with Arnholm and dying artist Lynstrand (Jonny Holden) respectively feel under-explored. By the time Arholm makes a surprise proposal to Bolette I didn't care enough about them to justify their lengthy scene together, and just wanted to get back to Ellida and her big decision. I was never bored, but much like its title character the production never quite settles between two worlds, undecided on whether it wants to be one of Ibsen's more dream-like plays or one of his more realistic and grounded ones.

The Lady From The Sea by Henrik Ibsen in a version by Elinor Cook is booking until the 2nd of December at the Donmar Warehouse.

Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes straight through.

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan.

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