The Lady from the Sea review at the Donmar Warehouse, London – ‘earthbound’
Having been recently appointed as artistic director of the Young Vic, Kwame Kwei-Armah returns to the Donmar Warehouse to direct Elinor Cook’s new version of Ibsen’s strange and slippery play.
Cook relocates events to the Caribbean of the 1950s. Nikki Amuka-Bird plays Ellida, the younger wife of the widowed Doctor Wangel and stepmother to his two children, Bolette and Hilde. Ellida is restless; something keeps her from committing to her new life. She spends as much time as she can in the water and speaks in melodramatic tones of the connection she still feels to the man she loved when she was a teenager. When he returns to claim her, she is torn: does she go with him or stay with her new family?
Written in 1888, some years after A Doll’s House but before Hedda Gabler, The Lady from the Sea sees Ibsen continue to explore the imbalances of marriage and a woman’s need for freedom. Cook’s reworking is alert to the fact that all of the female characters are subject to pressures from the men in their life.
Though Bolette’s doddering tutor Arnholm (Tom Mckay) is now a war veteran only just approaching 40, but the way he hungers for her is still unsettling. Even his insistence that she get an Oxford university education is coloured by his desire for her.
The doomed young Lyngstrand (Jonny Holden) is here an artist with dubious views about marriage who makes sculptures out of crab claw and driftwood, and shudders at the mere mention of figurative art. He’s portrayed more as a figure of fun than a source of tragi-comedy.
Some of Cook’s choices are intriguing but others just muddy things. Ellida’s bond with the mystery sailor seems to be primarily tied up in her sense of self, of who she is and who she once was. Her accent shifts when she speaks with him; he seems to release something in her. Yet he does not offer liberation just a different set of conditions under which to live.
Amuka-Bird is best when playing opposite Finbar Lynch’s Wangel. There’s tenderness in their interactions, as he tries to fathom this woman he loves and what she wants from life. There are some solid support performances, too but though the cast repeatedly clambers in and out of Tom Scutt’s cumbersome fish-tank set and spends a lot time scuttling over rocks, the whole thing feels strangely grounded and never quite hits the right emotional pitch.
Kwei-Armah’s recent production of One Night in Miami for the Donmar was a triumph, but this feels oddly passionless.