The transposition of Lady from the Sea from a glacial
Norway to a sultry Caribbean impresses CONRAD LANDIN
The Lady from the Sea? Donmar Warehouse, London 4/5
THERE are few writers whose work is more bound up with landscape and climate than Henrik Ibsen. His stage directions regularly counterpose the harsh Norwegian climate to the cosy allure of domestic settings, where the sense is not just of the desperation of artificial comfort but the entrapment it can create.
So it’s a bold move for Elinor Cook to relocate her new version of The Lady from the Sea from the west of Norway to the sunny Caribbean of the 1950s.
This lesser-known work tells the story of Ellida, daughter of a lighthouse keeper and lover of the sea. Her marriage to doctor Edward Wangel (Finbar Lynch) is on the rocks after their son dies as a baby. Nikki Amuka-Bird’s performance as Ellida, captivating and nuanced, displays the character’s enduring love as well as her cold disconnection, shattered ambition and heartfelt anguish.
Meanwhile Helena Wilson’s Bolette, Wangel’s daughter from his previous marriage, looks on with a sense of duty to her father.
Her teenage sister Hilde (Ellie Bamber), who makes a more fully fledged appearance in Ibsen’s later play The Master Builder, is more resentful.
The remote setting is permeated with visitations. The ever-busy Wangel has invited Bolette’s old tutor Arnholm (Tom McKay) in the hope that he can support Ellida.
Instead, Arnholm believes that he has license to propose to Bolette, who guiltily dreams of escaping the family home. Dilettante tourist Lyngstrand believes Bolette will not only fall for him but for his highly questionable artistic talents too.
Though Johnny Holden captures his arrogance well, the character is given far more presence than he is worth.
But the most significant presence is the The Stranger (Jake Fairbrother), Ellida’s long-lost fiance from the sea. When he returns to claim her as his own, she simply asks her husband to allow her the freedom to choose her fate and her husband is terrified.
Kwame Kwei-Armah’s production is carried by the persistent agitation which infects every corner of the stage. The sea is open, expansive and enchanting but a powerful guard too against escape and rebellion.
Cook’s island setting, realised in Tom Scutt’s design, works just as well as the pristine homeliness of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House or Ghosts. Yet racial divisions bring both the drama’s hostilities and the exoticisation of characters under a fresh critical eye and such agitation naturally creates unease.
The pacing of this production, and its questionable emphasis on tangents played for laughs, can jar.
But, undaunted in their departures from the original, Cook and Kwei-Armah lose none of Ibsen’s spirit.