Thursday, 26 October 2017

REVIEW: The Lady from the Sea at the Donmar Warehouse

The Lady From the Sea was written by Henrik Ibsen 129 years ago. Validated by time and the fact that Ibsen is the second most performed playwright of all time after Shakespeare, it is no wonder that this play is still as fresh as paint. Elinor Cook’s version transposes the story from 19th century Norway to a Caribbean island, breathing some new and interesting undertones into the story. Coupled with the direction of newly appointed Young Vic Director Kwame Kwei-Armah, this was clearly a hot ticket. 

The lights go up on a modern looking stage, brightly lit and being decorated by two sisters Hilde and Bolette in honour of their late mother’s birthday. Their stepmother Ellida, also the protagonist of the piece, makes an effort to chime in but with a taut performance from Nikki Amuka-Bird we can clearly see tensions afoot; setting up one of Ibsen’s classic themes of social expectations at odds with the individual’s true feelings. We are then introduced to Doctor Wangel (Finbar Lynch), father to the girls and Ellida’s husband; an old friend comes to visit and the story begins. 

Amuka-Bird’s Ellida is a complex creature, as the latest addition to the reconstituted family she is an outsider and well aware of the question mark around her status of belonging. Fractious and agitated, she successfully delivers a woman troubled by a secret past and moves her to a different plane from the other characters. A fish out of water, her amphibious mermaid-like state is compelling and communicated brilliantly through Tom Scutt’s ingenious set design. Ellida seems selfish and self involved but at the climax of the action we see Ibsen’s larger preoccupation of women and freedom, the binding roles that trap women in society and how men and women must navigate relationships through those murky waters. 

A secondary story which becomes just as captivating is the daughter Bolette (Helena Wilson), who agrees to marry her old school teacher as it seems the only viable means of escape off the island and away from her confining duties of paternal care. The character Arnholm (Tom McKay) is supportive and encouraging of Bolette with a seemingly selfless purpose, giving further complexity to the motivations of men towards women. Women’s options seem to be defined by men, which like Nora in A Doll’s House is something Ellida
challenges. Without this challenge women’s existences are stagnant and decaying, as the character Hilde points out a married woman becomes the ‘grieving bride’. 

In light of the Young Vic’s new appointment, this fresh take on a classic bodes well for a reinvigoration of theatre from Kwei-Armah. A smooth balance of modern and classic, old and young, love and lust, this is a thoughtful piece of drama, subtly examining the dynamics and divide that perpetually exist between men and women. 

Review by Anna Williams

Rating: ★★★★
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