Review - The Lady from the Sea at the Donmar Warehouse
Kwame Kwei-Armah was recently announced to succeed David Lan as artistic director of the Young Vic, and proved to be an immediately popular choice. The London-born former actor (he was a star of TV's Casualty and Holby City) turned award-winning playwright and theatre director is breaking a glass ceiling as he becomes the first British African-Caribbean director to run a major UK theatre.
The theatre he is going to now lead is known for blowing the cobwebs off the classical repertoire as well as investigating rarer parts of it, and here - in a production announced long before he was appointed to that job - he is doing both at the Donmar Warehouse. Its success is a hopeful sign that the Young Vic will be in good hands. I was going to say safe hands, but the last thing you want in bold theatre-making is safety; you want risk, innovation and surprise.
And the first thing to say about The Lady from the Sea is that it offers all three. This is not a gloomy version of a rarely-seen play set in Ibsen's native Scandinavia in the 19th century, but one relocated in playwright Elinor Cook's sparky new version in the sun-drenched Caribbean of the mid-1950s. Here, we find Nikki Amuka-Bird as Ellida, second wife to Finbar Lynch's Doctor Wangel, still pining for the man she once dated when she was 16 years old, 20 years earlier.
Now, finally, he returns - and she has to make a choice. But can a woman do that?
As with Ibsen's A Doll's House, there's a still startling clash of attitudes of the time and an assertion that a woman can make of emotional independence to a husband. It's only when he sets her free to make up her own mind that their relationship will be whole and equal.
In Kwei-Armah's gripping and intense production, there are superb performances from the entire ensemble cast - including the brooding presence of Jake Fairbrother as the stranger who comes to reclaim Ellida, Helena Wilson and Ellie Bamber as Ellida's step-daughters.
There's also a magnificent set from Tom Scutt that brings part of the lagoon onto the Donmar's expansive stage. There are times when the play drips with symbolism, but it is also rendered with a remarkable sense of feeling.