The Theatreguide.London Review
From The Sea
Donmar Theatre Autumn 2017
Though she is loved, a man's second wife never feels at ease in his home. She finally confesses that she is haunted by the memory of her first teenage love. And then, after twenty years, that man reappears to claim her.
It is an indication of Ibsen's greatness that the situation never sinks into soap opera, but becomes the vehicle for serious, thought-provoking and emotionally engaging explorations of gender roles, freedom and our difficulties in seeing past our fantasised images of each other to recognise the reality.
Much of the power and clarity of this new version can be credited to adaptor Elinor Cook, who has trimmed Ibsen's sprawling text to a smoothly moving 100 minutes, cutting away some of his diversions into murky mysticism to focus on the human story.
Cook and director Kwame Kwei-Armah also cleverly shift the location to an unnamed Caribbean island, finding intimations of isolation and the dangerous border between civilisation and wild nature that resonate for modern audiences more than Ibsen's Norwegian setting.
Torn between her solid husband and her near-fantasy former lover, Ellida is forced to recognise how much of her life has been spent chasing a dream that kept her from clearly seeing the reality in front of her. That leads to the realisation that everyone is equally blinded, neither man able to see the real her because of the fantasy images their love has created.
And, in a development that ties this play to Ibsen's Doll's House, she asserts that she can only make a choice if both men release her from any moral or emotional obligation – that, like Nora, she will only be able to see clearly if she breaks from their definition of a woman to be a free person.
Adaptor Cook has found a twentyfirst-century drama within Ibsen's nineteenth-century one, and director Kwei-Armah and his cast make the most of this new play.
Freed from some of the semi-supernatural overtones implied in Ibsen's title and the original text, Nikki Amuka-Bird makes Ellida a thoroughly believable and sympathetic woman struggling with the discovery that much of her emotional life has been a fantasy, and that making herself able to see reality will be a radical struggle.
Finbar Lynch presents all the husband's virtues and limitations without letting him slip into the self-pitying impotence of some Ibsen men.
And for the first time in my experience of the play a subplot involving a teenage girl and her admirers is clearly and touchingly a lower-intensity mirror of the main action, thanks largely to the realistic and nicely understated performances of Helena Wilson and Tom McKay.
If not quite the overpowering masterpiece that A Doll's House is, The Lady From The Sea cements its place in Ibsen's top rank with this sensitive adaptation and moving production.
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