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A CurtainUp London Review
A Doll's House
Zinnie Harris' new version of the Ibsen classic is a fairly modest relocation, moving the play forward just thirty years to 1909 and shifting the action from Norway to London. Bank manager Torvald Helmer becomes politician Thomas Vaughan (Toby Stephens), newly appointed as a cabinet minister. The lawyer Krogstad is another politician: Neil Kelman (Christopher Eccleston) recently deposed because of fraud allegations and replaced by Thomas Vaughan. Other than these changes, the plot remains largely unchanged: exploring the limited role women were allowed to play in society and men's one-dimensional, restrictive attitudes towards them.
The modifications mean that the original's emphasis on money is instead transposed into public and political fortunes. The precariousness of a politician's reputation both ameliorates the men's harsh decisions and makes them psychologically more explicable. With more obviously at stake, their true, ugly attitudes are revealed when thoroughly backed into a corner. Moreover, the theme of political scandal is one which still speaks to a 21st century audience with very little leap of imagination.
Although the play's repositioned setting is broadly similar to the original, the translation's dialogue is thoroughly modernised and zips along at a speedy pace. At times, the contemporary text might feel a little anachronistic, but this is a small price to pay for an engaging, accessible evening with vibrant and realistic characters.
The characters themselves are truly brought to life by spirited, individualistic performances from an impressive cast. Most notably, Gillian Anderson's endearing performance as the "edible" Nora suitably navigates the transition from the "doll" wife, the charming yet confined object of desire into realisation and independence. Her husband played by Toby Stephens, is magnificently supercilious and with priggish, self-righteous bombast delivers lines such as: "You have no idea how important I am, do you? ". Christopher Eccleston's Kelman, on the other hand, is unexpectedly affecting and sympathetic. His performance as the rogue, disgraced politician, is full of intense desperation and is at once angry and vulnerable. Tara Fitzgerald as the severe, fairly dowdy Christine and Anton Lesser as Dr Rank, the family friend and Nora-admirer, are also excellent components in this remarkable cast.
The set makes full use of the Donmar's small space, with white painted bookshelves reaching beyond the ceiling with a skylight. The library itself is dominated by Indian tea crates, dust covers and a prepossessing Christmas tree. The costumes are finely selected and cleverly reflect character nuances. Therefore, whilst Nora is decked out in Cadbury purple velvets and other sumptuous material, Christine wears boiled wool and tweeds.
All in all, this subtle but winning adaptation benefits from a dazzling cast, engaging contemporary dialogue and simply oozes dramatic energy.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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