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FringeReview UK 2017

The Lady From the Sea

Donmar Warehouse

Genre: Adaptation, Drama, Mainstream Theatre, Theatre, Translation

Venue: Donmar Warehouse


Low Down

Elinor Cook’s new version of The Lady From the Sea irradiates another side of the world in Ibsen’s play of new beginnings.

Director Kwame Kwei-Armah – whose One Night in Miami triumphed here a year ago – sets the pace for a 100 minute traversal, refracted through a feel of island torpor in Lee Curran’s lighting. Tom Scutt’s  set with a fish-tank and rock design acts as one portal to another: a bright almost sci-fi white lozenge, beyond which light plays on bare bricks. Michael Bruce’s composition discreetly underscores – with Emma Laxton’s sound – a kind of stasis. Till December 2nd.


Happy endings don’t seek the sun, though it helps. Elinor Cook’s version of Ibsen’s The Lady From the Sea at the Donmar is transposed from West Norway’s coast to a Caribbean island, at the end of British colonialism in the 1950s. It’s a beautifully detailed transposition that works, in this study of a woman’s longing and fear of vows made to a fleeing sailor twenty years ago, should he return. Naturally he does.


Director Kwame Kwei-Armah – whose One Night in Miami triumphed here a year ago –sets the pace for a 100 minute traversal. With an intense feel of island torpor Lee Curran’s steady-beat lighting ensures it doesn’t quite seem rushed. Tom Scutt’s striking bare-board set with a fish-tank and rock design (in effect a miniature of the island, replete with sunken ships) upstage left acts as a stepping stone, immersion. It’s one portal to another: a bright almost sci-fi white lozenge, beyond which light plays on bare bricks, lit like sunsets and violet hours. Michael Bruce’s composition discreetly underscores – with Emma Laxton’s sound – a kind of stasis.


Originally scheduled for two hours, Kwei-Armah’s clipped his pace to the rhythms of Cook’s dialogue. Irradiating another side of the world, it’s a sun-shafted condensation of Ibsen’s play of new beginnings. You’d hardly credit it’s five, not four or even three acts compassed with brief pauses as The Stranger turns up half-way through. That’s late for a lover but then there’s a husband and two potential couples to align first.


There’s a new tension: Nikki Amuka-Bird’s central Ellida, the lighthouse-keeper’s daughter who longs to re-immerse herself in the sea, her old lover Stranger Jake Fairbrother and Renaissance-man odd-job easel-painter Ballestred Jim Findley are identified here as Caribbean; the Wangel family and friends English. Both Ellida and The Stranger spell a difference Ibsen’s at pains to suggest, an otherness that has Ellida likened to a mermaid.


It might seem reductive to filter this through race as well as gender (in Ellida). But it triumphantly anchors as it were another way of living The Stranger and Ellida have in common, a cultural as well as geographical amity. The axes of patriarchy and freedom are now subtly charged with colonial assumptions. At least three kinds of sexual imperative, British to colonised, British to British and finally islander to islander, are sifted.


It’s underscored when Ellida finally meets The Stranger and her vocal register shifts to an easy dialect she’s not known for years. We actually hear their affinity, something new, ringing with its own truth, tipped towards this union over Ellida’s marriage.


Details alter too, or get added. The rich yacht’s now an American film-star’s. The Stranger has at one point learned Norwegian. And former tutor Arnholm has a hotline to Oxford University.


At least the sea’s warm and you don’t fear Ellida’s going to jump into icy breakers. In the preceding Rosmerholm the lovers leap into a frothing water mill. It’s as if they’ve re-emerged somehow, even the title The Lady From the Sea suggests it. Dating from 1888 it precedes the great paean of ‘no’ starting with Hedda Gabler, here a turning-point to the personal with a brief yes. That’s one reason we’re unsettled by it. Should we be?


Amuka-Bird conveys both assurance and a sea-lurch of angst   with a dignity straight from the original. She compels in her refusal to hurry her decisions and indeed fears; often the pace pauses just a tad to allow her this. It’s clear Ellida’s troubled by seeming unreason, despite her warm uncomprehending doctor husband, rippled by more local doubts, mourning the loss of their son she blames herself for with sexual withdrawal (in Little Eyolf it’s the husband who does this; there’s several parallels). It underlines how over seven years she’s failed to bond with him and her step-daughters, who each drag suitors in their wake.


The trouble is limbo: will the sailor who had to flee after killing his captain return to the vows made when she was sixteen? She confides this to Tom McKay’s ex-tutor Arnholm, here one of the two most empathic characters, and younger than the original: not yet forty limping with a war-wound and in love with Ellida many years ago. He too has returned for her.


There’s fruitful grounds for misunderstanding, Arnholm’s gradual switch to his old pupil the highly-intelligent elder daughter Bolette, Helen Wilson’s furrowed care-worn portrayal potentially eliciting almost as much sympathy as Amuka-Bird though she has necessarily less time to breathe it. Her comically boorish wooing by the gravely ill Lyngstrand, a New York-bound artist as much ahead of the curve in found art (crab-claws) as he lacks the talent to realise it, seems merely comic till you realise that dying young, as Bolette sees, will save him from a terrible realisation. Jonny Holden’s ebullience renders him more comic than tragicomic, you almost don’t believe here that he is dying, and it lightens the palette of this production.


There’s a clearer parallel being made though. His sexist assumption of Bolette as mere helpmeet is curiously rewarded. Flirty heedless but very forward Hilde – prototype for the devastating provoker in The Master Builder – seems happy to enjoy Lyngstrand for the moment. Here, they’re matched. Ellie Bamber’s not entirely heartless sexiness enjoys a brightness to cast the shadow of death (basically TB), almost erotically. She lights up her corner: Lyngstrand’s as yet dimly aware of his luck. It’s a subtle point Cook, Bamber, Holden and Kwei-Armah bring out by blazoning it in an almost happy-ending Caribbean glow.


Arnholm’s and Bolette’s altered relationship in Cook’s version firmly revolves around the best use of her intelligence, and his pulling strings for her to go to Oxford (piquantly, Wilson is an Oxford graduate). McKay calibrates his movement from Ellida to Bolette in such an empathic manner you almost fail to notice how creepy the original Arnholm might appear now. The personable McKay’s palpably younger than that: romance is possible (it certainly wouldn’t seem so normal in the 1950s were genders reversed though). Here too, pre-echoing the choice Ellida makes at the end, freedom is given, there’s no steel trap of marriage. Again, Cook and Kwei-Armah choose the sunniest conclusion to brighten the finale’s path.


Confrontation between Fairbrother and Amuka-Bird is at first low-charge electrifying, it skews everything. That residual charge has to work its way out in the triangle with Lynch at the neutral point. Whereas Fairbrother’s a simmering presence, commanding, rasping, clearly not envisaging defeat, it’s Lynch’s slow realisation that Amuka-Bird’s crucial ‘I want to be seen’ must be heard that pivots Lynch’s weary rationality into something else. It’s Wangel’s decision that allows Ellida to discharge twenty years’ tension into the ground.


This production’s memorable not just for the matching of locale and rationale with the original, but gently aligning the two other couples into the clearer optimism of the married couple. There’s a sense of ablution and renewal the way Amuka-Bird plunges through the water, and Fairbrother’s a kind of oblivion. If not all the misty tension of the original can then emerge, there’s certainly something to be said for allowing such light to play on the facets of this one affirmative jewel in Ibsen’s mature output.