Elinor Cook’s The Lady from the Sea, currently playing at the Donmar Warehouse, is a contemporary adaptation of Ibsen’s classic. And, as such, one would assume that the production would be relevant, analytical, and refreshing. Unfortunately, the production falls short on all counts; rather, it retains the stifling traditionalism of Ibsen’s original and wraps itself in the semblance of a contemporary setting.
Ibsen’s original follows an elusive figure, Elida (Nikki Amuka-Bird), who marries Dr Wangel (Finbar Lynch) and becomes step mother to his two daughters, Bolette (Helena Wilson) and Hilde (Ellie Bamber). Elida is like the sea herself; volatile, constantly seeking freedom, and taking dominance of the stage but never settling; and on the other hand, edgy, sensitive, and unpredictable. Her relationship with the sea is thus; she is simultaneously enraptured by it, longing to be in its clutches, but equally terrified of its unknown depths. The other characters, especially her husband Dr Wangel, are simply witnesses to the narrative of the play. But the characterisation of Elida and indeed the majority of other characters are surface-level and uninspiring. Ibsen’s plays traditionally rely on its central protagonist and, whilst Cook has largely followed this structure, is unable to sustain the audience in a realistic, nuanced representation. Amuka-Bird herself attempts to bring humanity to Elida but is ultimately underwhelming, her outbursts unconvincing and is far too detached from the audience to leave a lasting impact.
What is a greater disappointment, however, is that the production had the potential to revitalise this Ibsen classic in an unprecedented way. Originally set on the Norweigan Fjords, Director Kwame Kwei-Armah transposes it to an unnamed Caribbean island and therefore brings with it a more realistic racial representation in the cast; three of the eight cast members are Black, including Amuka-Bird. This adds a fascinating layer to the relationships of the characters which are already murky with distrust, suspicion, romance, and loss. Elida, having married into a white family, is a unique vessel through which to explore the power dynamics and social hierarchy of the Caribbean which cannot be ignored when considering its colonial past and its exploitation in the slave trade. Kwei-Armah chose the Caribbean in order to, as he says, “find somewhere where everyone could be naturally”. However, this production merely glosses over its most fascinating challenge of the original: race. I do not mean to imply that when casting an actor of colour, race must be explored or that actors of colour should not be cast as traditionally white characters. Personally, I was disappointed that the production could have offered a fascinating and unchartered view of contemporary Caribbean life in a mixed race relationship, but did not.
The set design by Tom Scutt, although haunting and enticing on the production photography, is unpractical and cumbersome with the actors either sitting on the rocks uncomfortably or awkwardly skirting around the glass box. The level of acting is most commendable for Jonny Holden who portrays Lynstrand, a sickly young man living on the island who nurses seemingly unrequited feelings towards Bolette. Their budding romance is constant, sweet, and far too often interrupted but nevertheless, Holden is endearing and convincing throughout, but unsupported by Helena Wilson (Bolette) or Ellie Bamber (Hilde).
Since Director Kwei-Armah is soon to take the helm at the Young Vic, one cannot help but look to this production of The Lady from the Sea for an indication of Kwei-Armah’s style and taste. One thing is clear: the production is accessible and makes an attempt at relevance, both of which are critical values for the Young Vic. As a production, however, it disappoints.