The Lady From the Sea
Print Room at the Coronet
Reviewed – 13th February 2019
“Ibsen’s work is full of discomfort and awkwardness, of course, but in order for the audience to feel it, the actors need to have an inner freedom and confidence on stage which is sadly lacking here”
The Lady from the Sea tells the story of Ellida, taken as a second wife by Wangel after the death of his first, and uprooted from her upbringing as a lighthouse-keeper’s daughter to live with him and his two daughters in a small town, away from the open sea. In common with Ibsen’s other work, the play is full of ghosts from the past – of Wangel’s first wife, of Ellida and Wangel’s dead infant son, and of Ellida’s mysterious seafaring lover, who eventually appears to try to claim her. In keeping with the other great theme running through the plays, Ellida and the two girls all yearn for freedom and self-determination, and struggle against the various stifling forces ranged against them. It is unusual in one respect however: in that, although the future for Wangel’s girls remains unclear, Ellida, at the play’s close, has exorcised her demons and come to a place of health, peace and inner freedom, in such a way that she is able to remain with her husband and they can begin truly to love one another, in a way that had previously been impossible.
This production is the second collaboration with Kåre Conradi, Artistic Director of The Norwegian Ibsen Company, and the first in which the cast speak in both English and Norwegian (the last, Little Eyolf, was entirely in Norwegian). The bilingual aspect is deftly handled, and, for the most part, the surtitles projected on to the backdrop work well and are strangely unintrusive. What is noticeable however, is that the company’s leading lady, Pia Tjelta, has a physical and vocal freedom in her native language which leave her when she is acting in English. This is perhaps understandable, but unfortunately, with the notable exception of Adrian Rawlins – wonderfully believable as the beleaguered Wangel – all the other actors in this production seem physically uncomfortable throughout, and totally disconnected from the truth of the material. This has the unfortunate effect of steering many of the play’s more intense moments into near farce. Ibsen’s work is full of discomfort and awkwardness, of course, but in order for the audience to feel it, the actors need to have an inner freedom and confidence on stage which is sadly lacking here. Similarly, vocal delivery is frequently stilted and mannered, and the characters’ actions on stage too often showed a directorial desire for a pleasing stage picture rather than stemming from the intent of the characters themselves.
Nils Petter Molvær’s stunning original music featured in strong underscoring throughout, but too often was entirely responsible for generating atmosphere that was lacking on stage. And despite his best efforts, and the highly charged nature of the script, this production remained at a distance from the mercurial and turbulent sea at its heart.
Reviewed by Rebecca Crankshaw
Photography by Tristram Kenton
The Lady From the Sea
Print Room at the Coronet until 9th March
Previously reviewed at this venue:
White Guy on the Bus
Reviewed – 29th March 2018
“the disarmingly moralistic first half gives way to a searing piece of theatre as insightful as it is brutal”
The poster for the Finborough Theatre’s production of White Guy on the Bus shows a silhouetted figure standing before a blazing inferno, a large house on fire. For the majority of the first act, however, you may find yourself wondering why.
Bruce Graham’s play opens with two overlapping sequences, both revolving around the wealthy, white, and liberal Ray (Donald Sage Mackay). First, we see him at home in suburban Philadelphia, comfortably passing the time with his white, liberal wife Ros (Samantha Coughlan) and his white, liberal friends Christopher (Carl Stone) and Molly (Marina Bye). Later, we find him travelling on a bus, seemingly for no reason, where he meets a young black woman, Shatique (Joanna McGibbon), who is studying for a nursing degree and caring for her son.
At home he, his wife and his friends chit-chat, mostly about their jobs, in Ray’s case a financial consultant who, in his own words, “makes rich people richer”. His wife is a teacher at a tough inner-city school where she keeps a tally of how often she is called “white bitch” each day. Their friend, Molly is also a teacher, though in a wealthier district. Molly’s well-intentioned idealism brings her into conflict with Ros who, due to her experiences at work, believes she is more realistic about racial and class tension in Philly. Meanwhile, on the bus, Ray and Shatique become friends. He tells her his rags-to-riches story, meanwhile she talks to him about the harsh reality of inner city life for a black woman. So far, the piece seems like a slightly predictable take on America’s racial fault lines from the perspective of the titular “white guy”. And then, minutes before the interval, we are plunged into the inferno as promised.
To say any more about the plot would give too much away, but in short, the disarmingly moralistic first half gives way to a searing piece of theatre as insightful as it is brutal. Though it is fair to say that the exploration of racism seems to come more from a white person’s perspective (it is also worth noting that, despite the title, only one non-white character actually appears in the play), Shatique’s storyline is the true heart of the story. Joanna McGibbon perfectly captures her sympathy and strength, especially the sense of loyalty to her son that makes her story in the second act all the more upsetting. Meanwhile Donald Sage Mackay nimbly handles Ray’s transition from a decent, apparently understanding figure into something altogether more horrifying.
Though the piece risks becoming pedestrian at times, its triumph lies in its awareness of the self-perpetuating nature of structural racism. Ray, the “numbers man” can easily trot out statistics about the difference between an average majority-white neighbourhood and an average majority-black neighbourhood but seems unable to ask why these differences exist in the first place. Meanwhile Shatique, though she is friends with Ray, also makes wary assumptions about him and about white people in general. That said, these assumptions are often reinforced by the world she sees around her.
The small space at the Finborough is used to the play’s advantage; at close quarters the savagery of the second act is all the more horrifying. Scenes overlap, with episodes on the bus and at Ray’s home blending into one another, giving a deliberate sense of distorted time. Sarah Jane Booth’s stage design is such that we are only able to tell where we are through dialogue alone.
White Guy on the Bus is not designed as a beacon of hope in the heart of Trump’s America. Quite the opposite. Graham pulls no punches, forcing us to face the true toxicity of class and race divisions. Though it is heavy-handed at times, and though it may not offer any answers, this is a play as relevant as it is ruthless.
Reviewed by Harry True
Photography by Helen Maybanks
White Guy on the Bus
Finborough Theatre until 21st April