Brantley in Britain: Eye-Openers in London: 19th-Century Women with 21st-Century Problems


Some blocks north, at the Donmar Warehouse, the female characters of another 19th-century drama, Ibsen’s “The Lady From the Sea,” directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah, are lamenting the idea of marriage as a women’s prison. And across the Thames River, in the unfortunately misfired inaugural production of the new Bridge Theater, female comrades laboring in the cause of economic revolution in 1850s London are finding their roles are limited to helpmeets, harem girls and amanuenses.


Rory Kinnear as Karl Marx, left, and Oliver Chris as Friedrich Engels in “Young Marx.” Credit Manuel Harlan

Of course, pretty much everyone in Richard Bean and Clive Coleman’s frantically farcical “Young Marx,” directed by Nicholas Hytner (the former head of the National Theater and the founder, with Nick Starr, of the Bridge), toils in the shadow of the supersized ego of its title character. That’s Marx as in Karl, indigent and randy at 32, and embodied by that fine actor Rory Kinnear as a selfish giant of a genius in this “Carry On, Anti-Capitalists” bio-comedy. Still, it’s Marx’s gals (including the household nanny he impregnates) whose roles remain most thanklessly supporting.

Before proceeding, we should perhaps pause to note that these plays are all written and directed by men. Still, it is at least somewhat heartening to think that, in the cases of Wilde and Ibsen, they were men who even a hundred years ago realized just how rotten the lot of women was and saw fit to deliver a sort of collective mea culpa on behalf of their dominating sex.

That note of apology, and the presence of restless female characters chafing at the bonds of sexism, lends an awakening buzz to works that are hardly among their authors’ best-known or most easily staged. “A Woman of No Importance” is a strange hybrid of drawing-room persiflage and he-done-her-wrong potboiler, while “The Lady From the Sea” seems to straddle two genres, mystical fable and social realism, that Ibsen usually kept apart.

If these latest incarnations never entirely reconcile such conflicting elements, they are both presented with an emotional conviction that keeps you thoroughly engaged. And while each interpolates theatrical devices that are scarcely parts of the original scripts, they remain unusually clear in setting forth dramatic arguments that could easily be muddied by retrospective condescension.

As adapted by Elinor Cook, who has changed the setting from the fjords of Norway to a Caribbean island, “Lady” reads more clearly than ever as a more hopeful reworking of themes Ibsen articulated in his earlier “A Doll’s House.” (You could even say that it has prior rights to the title “A Doll’s House, Part 2,” the title of Lucas Hnath’s excellent play of earlier this year.) Once again, a woman finds herself feeling confined and cramped in a marriage to a paternalistic man.

Her name is Ellida, given affectingly troubled life by Nikki Amuka-Bird, and while her husband, Doctor Wangel (Finbar Lynch), seems sympathetic to her discomfort, he is far from understanding what ails her. That, in part, is her feeling that she still belongs to a mysterious, menacing sailor (Jake Fairbrother) whom she knew in her youth, and to the open waters she knew growing up as the daughter of a lighthouse keeper.

Setting the play in the sunny Caribbean has its awkward side, which includes leaving Ms. Amuka-Bird in a swimsuit for much of the show. Yet there’s an openness and accessibility to this production that I’ve never encountered before, as if that island sunshine had dispersed the more obscuring mystical mists.

Mr. Kwei-Armah, the newly anointed artistic director at the Young Vic Theater (a role he last held at Center Stage in Baltimore), makes sure we feel how personally invested the characters are in what otherwise read as abstract arguments. A question posed by one of Ellida’s stepdaughters (Helena Wilson), as she considers marrying an artist who wants her to be his supplicant muse, echoes throughout the production: “Why would I want to be swallowed up whole by another person?”

Mrs. Arbuthnot, the title character of Wilde’s “Woman,” finds herself in another kind of bondage, that of an unmarried mother in respectability-worshiping Victorian England, and she has been forced to live under a pseudonym in the countryside with her callow grown son (Harry Lister Smith). But it looks as though her past is destined to eclipse her tranquil existence, when Lord Illingworth, the lover who abandoned her, shows up in the neighborhood.


Eve Best as Mrs. Arbuthnot, left, and Anne Reid as Lady Hunstanton in “A Woman of No Importance.” Credit Marc Brenner

It’s the stuff of mothball melodrama, and Mr. Dromgoole, the former artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe, is well aware of the play’s creakiness. So for this first offering of an Oscar Wilde season from his newly formed Classic Spring Theater Company, he provides the annotations of sentimental period music hall ballads, performed between acts by Anne Reid, the great octogenarian actress who appears as the hostess at the country house where much of the play is set.

Ms. Reid sings these numbers with a deliciously clueless sincerity that has no place for the arched eyebrows of irony. It’s the same sensibility evident when her character, Lady Hunstanton, delivers the Lady Bracknell-like pieties of her class and time. The script itself eventually steps outside the artificial, insular world of the upper classes whose absurdities Wilde mapped so meticulously.

Mrs. Arbuthnot, whom Ms. Best endows with a passion that glows with its own defiant morality, dares to conclude that she would not have lived her life differently, since that would mean that her beloved son would never have been born. Wilde rewards her by allowing her the possibility of escaping to a virgin land, where women can start anew and live as equals of men.

Since that country happens to be the United States of America, we can only wish Mrs. Arbuthnot a whole lot of luck.

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