adrift in my ocean of sugar tears: Learning to Swim

Edna Pontellier and Nora Helmer are two famous literary women, from Kate Chopin’s The Awakening and Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House respectively. Despite their differences, the characters share one crucial similarity: both leave their husbands at a time when to do so was radical and condemned. In adrift in my ocean of sugar tears, written and directed by Adelaide Greig, the original characters are uprooted from their stories and placed opposite one another in a dialogue that is both insightful and entertaining.

The script is thought provoking, funny and charming. Nora and Edna bicker, insult and degrade each other with wit and relentlessness, the dialogue making the audience laugh with discomfort at the characters’ venomous insults. Barely two minutes later, they comfort each other through tears and tantrums, dance together and chat. It is a convincing portrait of female friendship, with jealousy, cruelty and sass, under which lies genuine love and care. Interwoven with these realist scenes are short, poetic soliloquys, which for the most part were effective, contributing to the sense of a world which, though realistic on the surface, is slipping – of two women barely holding it together. This slippage, which progressed throughout the play, was also clever, and it was fascinating to see the characters lose their grip on reality and themselves, reaching the point where neither was distinguishable from the other. Credit must also go to the actors – Siân Lewis and Ashyr Mason-Kaine, as Nora and Edna respectively, were both excellent. Their chemistry was convincing, and successfully portrayed the demanding love/hate, support/insult relationship between the characters. Mason-Kaine in particular pulled off Edna’s violent outbursts of emotion with a balance of restraint and conviction.

The set and costume design was relatively simple but incredibly effective. The design itself was well done, with a kitschy, overly floral emphasis that was somehow both dated and timeless. Edna and Nora, two women (originally) from the later 19th century, seemed to be situated in some semi-modern conservative floral nightmare, reminiscent of both an overly domesticised doll’s house and Cyndi Lauper’s Girls Just Wanna Have Fun music video. It was as the show went on that the set design’s effectiveness really began to shine through. With the mounting tension on stage, the set, with its sugary, kitschy floweriness, became stifling both for the characters and the audience. I personally had to fight the urge to get out for a breath of fresh air, and this uncomfortable stuffiness was highly effective.

One thing I did wonder was whether the characters even needed to be Edna and Nora. Ibsen and Chopin’s stories are very different to Greig’s, and the Edna and Nora presented on stage bear little resemblance to those of the texts. I don’t doubt that these are intentional differences, and it was interesting to see the two women, startlingly different despite their similar circumstances, placed opposite one another. Still, I couldn’t help but find myself getting caught up in the original texts, with the glaring difference that neither Nora and Edna love their husbands, both actively leave them, and Edna, at least, never looks back, seeking liberation to any end. Greig’s Edna and Nora are left by their husband(s) – they cry over him, berate him, and go mad waiting for him to call in a way that I simply couldn’t imagine their original counterparts doing. The characters of Edna and Nora have undoubtedly been a diving board, so to speak, for Greig’s ideas. Her characters are complex and interesting; their struggle is relevant and unique, but it is also their own. Perhaps the characters learnt to swim with the guidance of Chopin and Ibsen’s texts, but like Chopin’s Edna, they seem ready to find independence and swim alone.

Ultimately, adrift in my ocean of sugar tears is a poignant and engaging piece of theatre, which I think is certainly strong enough to stand on its own, away from the texts of Chopin and Ibsen. I look forward to seeing how it develops in the future.

Matilda Millar-Carton

FLW’s adrift in my ocean of sugar tears ran from the 23rd – 25th of August as part of Mudfest 2017

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