Ibsen’s The Lady from the Sea is given a fresh new canvas in Elinor Cook’s excellent adaptation for the Donmar Warehouse. The mountains of west Norway are replaced by a tropical island in the Caribbean while the late Victorian setting is changed to the early 1950s. This time shift does no harm to the central themes of the original play in its exploration of women’s lack of independence from men, whether feeling trapped by marriage like Ellida, the lady from the sea, or trapped by a sense of duty like her step-daughter, Bolette. With Nikki Amuka-Bird playing the land-locked Ellida, the casting is not colour blind but suggestive of a cultural separateness between the Afro-Caribbean characters and the white Norwegians which, subtly done, matches the thematic structure of Ibsen’s play.
Tautly directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah, the production is perfectly balanced between the naturalism and mythic elements of the story that focuses on a sea-loving lighthouse-keeper’s daughter who is tortured by memories of a passionate teenage love affair while struggling to cope within the confines of being married to a kind, older doctor and becoming step-mother to his two daughters. Reduced to 100 minutes with no interval, the action may feel rushed compared to the original but it brings a gripping clarity to the gentle twists of the narrative. It is well supported by Tom Scutt’s set, including a small tank that represents not only inland waters but the sea, with a miniature ship and house submerged in its murky waters. Lee Curran’s atmospheric lighting accentuates the mythic qualities, at times creating an unsettling eeriness.
Amuka-Bird is impressive as Ellida, keeping her character rooted in the real world despite the pull towards a melodramatic other-worldliness. Among a strong cast, Helena Wilson stands out as the practical Bolette, torn between her family and a longing to escape to university, while Finbar Lynch captures the patient love of Ellida’s husband. Tom McKay is suitably solid as her old friend and the girls’ former tutor, Arnholm, alongside some lighter relief from Jonny Holden as a struggling young sculptor and Ellie Bamber as Bolette’s outspoken teenage sister.
After exploring female friendship in her powerful play Out of Love for Paines Plough, Cook is proving herself a writer to watch. While The Lady from the Sea dates back to 1888 and has been relocated to the 1950s, Ellida’s turmoil has a very modern feel as she struggles to find an identity for herself as an individual outside of her relationship to the men in her life.
Originally published on BritishTheatre.com. Picture by Manuel Harlan