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Previews begin tonight for the Donmar Warehouse’s production of Ibsen's The Lady from the Sea, adapted by Elinor Cook and directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah. We spoke to Tom McKay, who is appearing in the production, about what’s new about this adaptation, finding out about Kwei-Armah becoming the new artistic director of the Young Vic, and why he makes his cast dance in the rehearsal room for half an hour every morning.
How’s everything in the rehearsal room going?
Normally there’s a week four or five panic where you get more tense as the opening night approaches, but I’m not feeling it this time. Mainly because of Kwame. He’s so constructive in every way that it makes the room calm and supportive and positive. He leads with such a calm authority. We’re in a really nice spot, and it comes from Kwame’s energy.
We’ll definitely talk about Kwame, but let’s focus on the play. Elinor Cook’s adapted the text, what’s she done with it?
She’s set it in 1951 on a non-specific Caribbean island. Apart from that, she stays really faithful to the original. My understanding is that they wanted to set it in the modern day, but one of the problems that throws up is that one of the themes of the play is marriage – the institution of marriage and whether we have a need for it. You could argue that contemporarily, it’s not such a debate. In 2017, it’s easier for a woman to leave her husband if she’s not happy in a way it wouldn’t have been in the 1880s [when the play was originally set], and arguably a British colonial island in the ‘50s. By setting it in the ‘50s, you can have your cake and eat it in terms of putting a different spin on it without losing the social issues.
What else does setting it there bring to the production?
I’d say is that there’s something elemental that you gain and don’t expect about setting it in such heat. It’s a really interesting spin setting it in this climate. You could argue it’s a bit more impassioned and sweaty, and I think fierier in a way. For me, that’s one of the biggest selling points of the production.
Were you familiar with the play before?
I’d never even read this play before, but I’ve seen plenty of Ibsen. The only production of his I’ve seen that wasn’t what we would call ‘period’ was the Ivo van Hove Hedda Gabler. But this is a different animal. It’s not as abstract, our play is a lot more literal.
You’re playing Arnholm in the play, how are you finding that?
I’m really enjoying it. He’s kind of socially inept, not very good with talking about his feelings. He as a hell of a lot buried. His default position is to listen and to draw things out of people. He’s a very safe place for all of the other characters.
For people who don’t know the play, what can they expect?
Ibsen is a bloody good story teller. Every time you register a new piece of information, he plays a card just when you’re ready for it, and it’s always a trump card. He’s a master of it in my opinion.
What has it been like working with Kwame? It must be a really exciting time to work with him…
This is one of the happiest productions I’ve ever been on, and that really is thanks to Kwame. He does this thing where every morning, we dance for half an hour around the rehearsal room. It sounds weird, but it’s so lovely once you’ve done it. You get rid of all those typical inhibitions at the beginning of the rehearsal period. We do it every single day, regardless of what we’re doing. Imogen Knight [movement director] does it independently too. It’s been revelatory. It really speaks to Kwame’s personality because he’s always there dancing with us. He has this young vibrant energy. With a play like this you could spend loads of time sat around the table talking and deconstructing the piece, which is boring at the end of the day.
What was it like in the room when you found out about his new role at the Young Vic?
It was really exciting. He gathered everyone around and said: “I don’t want you to hear this through the grapevine, but I’ve got some really happy news to share”. We went crazy with excitement, it was amazing. On the one hand he’s an incredible director with a huge body of experience. I would argue that Kwame has fought twice as hard to get to where he is. I think that it’s hugely exciting because it feels like a watershed moment, but on the other hand, that’s not the point. The point is that he’s amazing at what he does, irrespective of his race. Now, having been able to get to know him more personally, I know that this is so the right thing.
Had you ever worked with him before?
I hadn’t. Often in audition rooms it takes a while to warm up and working out who’s thinking what. But Kwame bashes that wall down as soon as you walk in. I’m pretty sure he gave me a hug as soon as I walked in. He’s the kind of person that makes you feel really welcome, and that in turn means you can do your best work.
Finally, I’m intrigued… what kind of music do you all dance to?
Every day somebody gets to choose. I used to be massively into my house music when I was younger. Especially a band called Leftfield. I play a lot of that which had us all bouncing around and getting very sweaty.
Photos courtesy Manuel Harlan