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Interview with Tom McKay from the cast of The Lady From The Sea

Tom McKay - Photographer Ranald Mackechnie
Tom McKay – Photographer Ranald Mackechnie

Donmar Associate Kwame Kwei-Armah directs Elinor Cook’s new version of Ibsen’s masterpiece The Lady from the Sea, Ibsen’s moving play about duty and self-determination. Cast includes Nikki Amuka-Bird (Ellida), Ellie Bamber (Hilde), Jake Fairbrother (The Stranger), Jim Findley (Ballested), Jonny Holden (Lynstrand), Finbar Lynch (Dr Wangel), Tom McKay (Arnholm) and Helena Wilson (Bolette).

We asked Tom McKay a few questions about the production, and this is what he had to say:

Q: What attracted you to be a part of this production?
Tom: Well firstly, I’m a huge fan of the Donmar – I love the direction in which Josie has taken the building since she took over, so working there has huge appeal for me. Secondly, the play itself and more specifically Elinor Cook’s stunning adaptation were a huge draw. And finally, our director Kwame Kwei-Armah; I hadn’t met him before the audition, but once I had, I was completely sold on doing the job. He was an actor originally and really understands what it’s like to be on our side of the fence when auditioning. He is as welcoming and warm as he is intelligent and thorough, and his rehearsal room is every bit as inspiring a place to be as his audition room was. We spend the first half hour of every day dancing around the rehearsal room to tracks that we get to choose – what’s not to love?!

Q: Can you tell us about The Lady from the Sea?
Tom: It’s arguably one of Ibsen’s less well-known plays and not one I had come across before my audition. It is the story of a woman who feels trapped in her marriage and is pining for the sea, aswell as her old lover. When he returns to reclaim her, she is forced to choose between the security of her marriage and the wild allure of her former life. There are very clear parallels with “A Doll’s House” in the way it looks at women being trapped by marriage, and with “Hedda Gabler” in its examination of mental illness (at a time when that term didn’t exist), but dramatically it treads a very different path. When I first read the play, I thought I knew exactly where it was going, having seen those other two plays, but in fact, it takes some very different twists and turns that are hugely exciting and unexpected and, unusually for Ibsen, pretty life-affirming!

Q: This is a new version by Elinor Cook – can you elaborate on how it is ‘new’?
Tom: The first stage direction in Elinor’s version includes the words: “A leafy hill on a Caribbean island, sometime in the mid-nineteen fifties.”
So suffice to say there’s nothing traditional about this production! Gone are the icy fjords and the Victorian costumes; the heat of the Caribbean brings a whole different energy which, in my opinion, loses nothing of the original’s brilliance, but adds a quality that we wouldn’t normally associate with Ibsen. At the same time, the 1950s post-colonial British island setting means we lose nothing of the sense of social expectation and the logic of why Ellida feels so trapped in her marriage. Elinor and Kwame originally toyed with updating the play to modern day, but the 50s setting means we get to have our cake and eat it in terms of viewing Ibsen’s world through a very different lens, but not completely departing from the social restrictions that provide the foundations for Ellida’s dilemma.

Q: You play the part of Arnholm – can you tell us about the character and how he fits into the storyline?
Tom: Arnholm is, without doubt, one of the most beautiful characters I’ve ever had the pleasure to play. He is incredibly soulful, full of nobility and quintessentially English in his inability to express himself emotionally! He is a brilliant listener and unwittingly ends up being the therapist to pretty much every other character on stage!! Until he eventually steps up to the plate and summons the courage to go after what he really wants. He is an old friend of Ellida’s who returns to the island at the start of the play still holding a candle for her. Actually, it’s more like a bonfire. Suffice to say there’s unfinished business for him, but things certainly don’t pan out as he expects them to.
He has a gentle, delicate nature which is unlike any character I’ve played before, and feels very off centre for me as an actor, so I’m loving exploring that side of him. On a technical level, he has a limp from a war wound, which means I can’t get around the stage very quickly, which is a fantastic challenge for me, as my natural tempo is pretty fast, so I’m loving experimenting with his stillness and physical restriction.

Q: What is at the heart of the play and why should everyone get along to see it?
Tom: At the heart of the play is a ferociously complex and brilliant woman who is wrestling with her identity in every sense of that word – gender, race, age, sexuality and more. It is also a fascinating examination of marriage and whether it’s an institution that we have any need for at all. It seems groundbreaking now, let alone 130 years ago when it was originally written. As regards why people should see it? For Elinor’s words, for Tom Scutt’s stunning design (the sea isn’t entirely off stage, that’s all I’m saying!), for Kwame’s vision and a cast that I think are knockout – Nikki was two years above me at LAMDA and I’ve long thought she’s one of the best actors of our generation – I have a very strong feeling this play will prove that to be the case.


LAMDA graduate and rising star Tom McKay has enjoyed an illustrious career including the role of Brutus in Julius Caesar at the Globe. Tom began his acting career in a variety of roles including Henry V at the National, Macbeth in the West End, Frost/Nixon at the Donmar. Along with his theatre roles, Tom has starred in a number of television shows including Primeval, Waterloo Road, Spooks and the White Queen. His film credits include Imagine Me and You, Clubbed, The Harrow and his latest, Kill Command. This October, Tom returns to his theatrical roots to play Arnholm in Kwame Kwei-Armah’s production of Ibsen’s “The Lady From The Sea” at the Donmar Warehouse opposite Nikki Amuka-Bird.

The Lady from the Sea
18th October to 2nd December 2017
Previews from 12th October
Donmar Warehouse
41 Earlham Street
London WC2H 9LX


  • Neil Cheesman

    First becoming involved in an online theatre business in 2005 and launching londontheatre1.com in September 2013. Neil writes reviews and news articles, and has interviewed over 150 actors and actresses from the West End, Broadway, film, television, and theatre. Follow Neil on Twitter @LondonTheatre1

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