Written in 1888 by the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, The Lady from the Sea is originally set in the coastal fjords of Scandinavia. Newly adapted by Elinor Cook and staged at the Donmar Warehouse, she relocates the narrative to a tropical Caribbean island where warm-watered lagoons supersede the long, narrow inlets of Ibsen’s imagination.
Once the daughter of a lighthouse keeper, Ellida (played by Nikki Amuka-Bird) has been marooned inland and bound to her husband Dr Wangel by a ring secured to the third finger of her left hand. Something deep within her soul aches to be reunited with the sea, so when a previous lover from her teenage years discovers her whereabouts, she is confronted with a choice between the freedom that she craves and her husband and his two daughters.
Designed by Tom Scutt, the lush Caribbean climate is ingrained within the very fabric of the stage. Hibiscus flowers bloom, bright against an immense white arbour, and wooden planks slide together to create floorboards and a backdrop just visible through the dazzling alcove. The wood is bleached in parts from the intensity of the sun, anaemic beside the rock formation nestled against the terrace. Encased in glass and surrounded by turquoise water, its colour is more mineral than the grassy moss bursting through the gaps in the coffee-coloured oak. Seaweed sways beneath the surface, dancing among shells, a miniature cottage and a sunken ship – delicate souvenirs from the pasts of each character. These clever ghosts also represent Ibsen’s infamous technique of ‘retrospective arrangement’, and provide the audience with pieces from a history of a time before the play has even begun.
Crickets call out to one another and a mist is blown from a frothy ocean beyond the horizon, falling like a waterfall of dust before settling on Ellida’s skin. Amuka-Bird’s performance struck a perfect balance between sadness and madness, her salty tears and restless energy painting a claustrophobic picture of the oppressive kind of paradise that she was trapped in. Indeed, the entire cast of eight present a world of depth within each of their characters, which is a testament to Kwame Kwei-Armah’s careful direction. Dialogue surrounding gender politics made themselves known through conflicting and harmonious energies, and the brilliant underlying humour came with a consistent honesty applied by all. The impact of such continual integrity was a faithful reminder of the destructive power of lies, but also of how telling the truth can affect a family unit for the worse. These elements remain painfully relatable in the present-day, and Cook has done well to transpose Ibsen’s core principles into her modern reworking of the production.
The Lady from the Sea reminds its audience of the brief nature of the human life, and of how important it is to seize the opportunities presented to us, whatever they might be. It is haunting and delightfully real in its display of this world and the otherworld, with both systems carrying with them an intoxicating desire to be set free. Cook has delivered an interpretation of Ibsen’s exposition so powerful that it fills the lungs until it’s all you can breathe. Once you’re under, you won’t even want to come up for air.
The Lady from the Sea is playing at the Donmar Warehouse until December 2 2017
Photo: Manuel Harlan