Saturday 9 December 2017

The Lady from the Sea at the Donmar, or, Symbolic Paddling Involved

Note: This is a review of the matinee on Saturday 2nd December 2017.

Regular readers will know that I've never really got on with Ibsen. This was not a performance of his work that changed my mind.

Adaptor Elinor Cook and director Kwame Kwei-Armah relocate the action from Norway to the Caribbean. There are various problems with this. Cook's text retains all of the characters' original names without accounting for what these Scandinavians are doing in the Caribbean. There's also a description of a lagoon which I'm afraid sounds much more like the dark seas of a fjord. More seriously, the relocation assumes that an interracial marriage in the Caribbean of the 1950s would be  accepted without question by everybody and, indeed, that there are absolutely no racial tensions at all – neither position struck me as convincing. There is one heavy handed attempt to compare marriage to slavery late on which doesn't really help the problem. Overall, the relocation comes across as half baked, undermining rather than reinforcing belief in the text.

Matters are further not helped by Tom Scutt's peculiar set. The stage is bare except for a square shaped pool within a glass and silver frame stage left. The frame seemed oddly modern for the 1950s to me, but perhaps that's unfair. At the back right hand corner of this pool a heap of rocks rises from within. Under the water are various miniature boats and houses – it never was quite clear to me why. This pool is, I assume, meant to make us think of the regularly referred to sea. Unfortunately, it is confusingly used sometimes as if it is the sea (in which guise it never convinces), sometimes as an ornamental pond apparently in the back garden of Wrangel's house, and on one occasion as what appears to be a pool of the mind because we have just been informed that the characters are up on a mountain and the sea is miles away. Intermittently characters jump into this pool or splash people with water from it. The whole thing is a muddled, ineffective device, and, indeed, as the show went on I couldn't avoid the feeling that Kwei-Armah didn't really know what to do with it. Heavy handed contributions from Lee Curran (lighting), Emma Laxton (sound) and Michael Bruce (composer) also feature – they appear to have been directed to give a quasi supernatural atmosphere every time something that might be supernatural is talked about – for example Ellida's account of The Stranger. These effects feel intrusive and undermine rather than assisting the credibility of the narrative.

The acting ensemble is solid, but lacks an exceptional performance which might have transcended the weaknesses of the production. Sadly, several are guilty of lack of subtlety similar to that shown by aspects of the production. Nikki Amuka-Bird (Ellida) doesn't seem to realise that less can be more – her delivery is too often over-vehement where slower and more varied could have been much more powerful. Some of the lines in Cook's version are highly melodramatic – I think it was Bolette (Helena Wilson) who has to say something like “How do you live with the guilt”. A line like that needs particular care, and again Wilson misses the necessary subtlety – though she's one of the stronger performances overall. I also felt that the performances weren't complete enough – as I've said before, mystery can remain but the viewer should be convinced that directors/performers have a total sense of each character – instead episodes are insufficiently linked together here, relationships changing abruptly where the best shows would craft a look, a gesture earlier so that when that later moment comes you have a real sense of that evolution.

Overall another indifferent show in what has been a largely indifferent year for this venue (with the exception of the marvellous Limehouse).

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