Elinor Cook’s fleet-footed adaptation uproots Ibsen’s play from chilly Norway to a late colonial Caribbean island. It’s a transplant that drips with possibility as we meet our heroine Ellida, a second wife and lighthouse keeper’s daughter, who has scuppered herself on the big house on the hill but still dreams of the freedom of the sea. Her new family are the kind of frustrated idle rich beloved of Chekhov, as the two daughters dream of escaping their island paradise. But this production soon sails away from this rich thematic soil to become a full-on feminist call to action.
Ellida is frustrated by life in the big house and, haunted by a youthful betrothal to a violent, mysterious lover, she feels unable to commit herself to life with her husband. But she isn’t some flighty girl dreaming of romance, passion and adventure on the wild seas.
Neither is she the bitter islander bemoaning the occupying culture, their money and their snobbery. Played with backbone and dignity by Nikki Amuka-Bird, allusions to Ellida’s mental instability are brushed over in favour of solid reasoning. The Lady from the Sea doesn’t want to replace one man for another. Or to even to be free from men altogether. Want she wants is to be free from a sense of duty to make a genuine choice: intellectual freedom.
And this what is most shocking about The Lady from the Sea: a play from 1888, albeit reimagined, is possibly the most quietly radical thing on London’s many stages. It’s overt feminism is even more peculiar in a play that turns on not one but two younger woman-older man relationships. And it’s positive about them. Not in a creepy-old-Ibsen-digs-it kind of way, but in that these men are able to grow and change and come to ‘see’ the women they love. Witnessing the man-woman presented as a purely intellectual problem is both a blessed relief given the current news cycle and, in many ways, thoroughly bizarre. Proof, maybe, that how little even ‘serious drama’ scratches the surface of straight-up sexual attraction.
As edifying as this is, I can’t shake the feeling that things are occasionally a little clinical. Despite a charmingly acerbic teen and preposterously pompous artist, the characters are, grumbling aside, all essentially kind and well-intentioned. Only the murkiness of Tom Scutt’s tellingly artificial stage lagoon, Ellida’s annoyance at the humidity and some teenage whingeing hints that all is not well in paradise. When a gun appears, it’s a solid reminder that this isn’t in fact Chekhov: there’s never any danger of it going off. Whether it’s the absence of passion or mortal peril, The Lady from the Sea is a play that feels comfortingly thoughtful, rather than an affronting challenge.
Kwame Kwei-Armah direction is precise, yet manages to retain the languid feel of the idle rich and their sun-drenched boredom despite the breakneck speed of the action. What depth is lost with speed of proceedings is more than made up for with a vividly realised clarity of purpose that satisfies Ibsen’s burgeoning symbolism. The cast too, in particular Finbar Lynch’s confuddled patriarch and Helena Wilson’s Bolette, do a great job to flesh out some of Ibsen’s less complex creatures.
Happy endings and nice guys are hard to comeby in theatre. The Lady from the Sea has both and that’s something worth witnessing.
The Lady from the Sea is on until 2 December 2017 at the Donmar Warehouse. Click here for more details.