Donmar Warehouse, London – until 2 December 2017
GUEST CRITIC MICHAEL ADAIR ENCOUNTERS IBSEN’S BRACING RAGE… Ibsen’s 1889 work, The Lady From the Sea has washed ashore at the Donmar in a new version written by Elinor Cook and directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah, who next year will lead the Young Vic.
Set in the 1950s on a Caribbean island, the lady is Ellida: the wonderful Nikki Amuka-Bird. She is a lighthouse keeper’s daughter and second wife to the island’s physician: Finbar Lynch as Doctor Wangel. As contemporary audiences will readily diagnose, Ellida suffers from depression. Each morning she gets into the sea: leaving the water becomes a ‘catastrophe’, so she swims until she shivers and her teeth are chattering.
It’s an unhappy household. Ellida’s stepdaughter Bolette dreams of leaving the island to fulfil her academic potential, yet feels obliged to stay and look after her father. Bolette’s younger, brasher sister, Hilde, yearns for maternal attention. The girls’ father duly spends much of his time at his surgery, avoiding confrontation with his increasingly troubled wife.
On their island, Ellida and her stepdaughters are trapped, surrounded by a sea of masculinity. The affable Doctor Wangel enlists another man to help heal his ailing wife, the war-veteran Arnholm (Tom McKay). He immediately sets about attempting to seduce his former pupil, Bolette, half his age. For comic-relief, Johnny Holden’s Lyngstrand is a sickly and awkward sculptor who has delusions of going to New York to find fame and fortune.
He informs us that a good wife is merely a reflection of an even better husband, and learns her talents from him, by osmosis. It is Ibsen’s prescience that is the most fascinating aspect here. At a time when we are still only beginning to uncover the extent of toxic masculinity in present-day society – this century-old plot, with men assertively controlling and manipulative to each woman’s detriment, feels remarkably current.
Tom Scutt’s set is sparse but effective, white paint flaking off of wooden boards and a large pool of water filled with coral-coated rocks. It is well used, particularly with the rather beautiful effect of mushrooming clouds of sand whenever the cast step into the water. But when Ellida’s former lover appears, and she is torn between him and her husband, the mood is tainted by the staging here. Each appearance of ‘The Stranger’ prompts dark lighting and ominous music – as if the intrigue surrounding this character is more important than her mental state. It was rather a distraction.
Nikki Amuka-Bird is captivating as Ellida, and Ellie Bamber as Hilde and Helena Wilson as Bolette are wonderful as the daughters, their strength, intelligence and humour tempered with the fragility of living in a world owned by men. It’s a well put-together and impressive performance of a lesser-known Ibsen play: Less shocking than in the 1880s, but as relevant as ever.
Box Office – 020 3282 3808 to 2 December