Theatre Review: The Lady from the Sea (Donmar Warehouse)

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the lady from the sea donmar warehouse nikki amuka bird

The Lady from the Sea
Donmar Warehouse
by Henrik Ibsen, in a new version by Elinor Cook
Directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah

Reviewer: Tom Baker

How long can the truth stay buried? Apparently not long, if you live near any sizeable body of water. The tides have a way of dredging up repressed emotional flotsam, from the memory of the first Mrs De Winter in Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca to the ghosts of dead sailors in John Carpenter’s The Fog, and so too with the promise of a lost lover in Ibsen’s The Lady from the Sea. Nikki Amuka-Bird (seen recently in the BBC adaptation of Zadie Smith’s NW) stars in this new version which is bold and accessible, but suffers from being too rooted in reality.

Amuka-Bird’s Ellida, second wife of Doctor Edvard Wangel and step-mother to Bolette and Hilde, is seemingly content with her lot in life. But a past romance torments her, which she sublimates into daily morning swims which earn her the eponymous nickname. Distressed by his wife’s reticence to explain this unusual habit, her husband invites old friend – and former tutor of Bolette – Arnholm to their island home. That’s the basic set up, but this new version from playwright Elinor Cook and director Kwame Kwei-Armah takes certain liberties with the original text, transposing the action from the mountains of West Norway to the Caribbean. Combined with an update in the time period from the late 1800s to the forties, this version has a tone at times more akin to a reasonably-budgeted television drama, rather than highly symbolic Scandinavian myth.

Besides the cosmetic changes, there’s a cheeky vitality here that Ibsen could rarely be accused of possessing. Ellie Bamber’s Hilde is a recognisable type as an angsty teen, planning her seduction of local invalid/pompous artist Lyngstrand (Jonny Holden, full of touchingly heartfelt hot air) out of boredom more than anything else. It also transpires Tom McKay’s Arnholm has misunderstood the reason for his invitation to the island, and subsequently attempts his own (more sincere) seduction of Helena Wilson’s Bolette in a similarly winsome manner. Lyngstrand, meanwhile, also has his eyes on the older Wangel sister, as well as on completing a sculpture inspired by a traumatic event in his past.

That event – the sinking of a ship just off the coast of the island – is the catalysing incident which brings together these parallel plot threads. Ellida is both literally and figuratively haunted by the memory of a sailor who went down on that ship. Equal stage time is given to each story, but nevertheless, Amuka-Bird’s Ellida is the star. Partially because she plays the moments of daring soul-bearing and plastered-on gentility with equal conviction, the scenes between her and McKay – whose own performance has a fragility itself masked by a Hugh Laurie-ish affability – especially engrossing, partly because her story is so much stranger, more otherworldly than the rest. It’s unfortunate that Finbar Lynch is given to rather declamatory deliveries of admittedly rather declamatory dialogue as he tries to talk through his wife’s nightmares, and her inability to reconcile a past relationship with their current marriage.

Brightly-lit and boldly acted, Kwei-Armah’s production (a taste of what’s to come from his recently-announced tenure as creative director of the Young Vic, maybe?) belies the chilly spaces or claustrophobic interiors of traditional European theatre in favour of an Ibsen that’s opened up to the world, the set design a semi-realistic space including wooden planks and a rock pool. This makes a perhaps-intimidating play more immediately accessible, but also exposes the seams in the writing and performances. The cast are uniformly solid, although a couple struggle to break out of the one-note roles the text boxes them into, and playing things quite so straight and populist does a disservice to the more peculiar, allegorical (even supernatural) sides of the story. 

Runs until: December 2nd 2017 at Donmar Warehouse