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A CurtainUp London  Review
A Doll's House

By Lizzie Loveridge

Didn't you say that no-one had been here?
My little songbird must never do that again.
A song bird must have a clean beak to sing with.
Otherwise she'll start twittering out of tune.
--- Torvald Helmer
When in 1889 Henrik Ibsen's play A Doll's House was first produced in a London theatre, the newspaper reviews were generally unfavourable. The Standard, for instance, said, “It would be a misfortune were such a morbid and unwholesome play to gain the favour of the public”. Thank goodness that there were others who reacted more kindly, among them George Bernard Shaw, W.B.Yeats and Harvey Granville Barker. 

Shared Experience's production of A Doll's House is its twenty-ninth professional production in London over 122 years. The company, under joint artistic directors Nancy Meckler and Polly Teale, has a reputation for intense theatricality, thoughtful productions, beautifully designed and imaginatively staged. This latest A Doll's House does not disappoint. 

The first impact is on the visual: interesting and ambitious casting -- for a Scandanavian play -- has black actors in the roles of Torvald Helmer (Norah's controlling husband) and Nils Krogstad, the man who threatens to expose Norah's forgery of her father's signature. In contrast, the set and everything on it is painted the soft white of a French paint wash effect but lit to make it appear white and palest of green. The floorboards are bare, the walls shabby, showing signs of peeling wallpaper plastered over. To one side sitting on the floor is a large doll's house, on three floors, painted white. The effect of taking the colour out of the room makes us concentrate on the actors without distractions as well as reminding us of the coldness of this Nordic climate. 

Polly Teale makes Norah Helmer emerge from the toy house. She stretches and turns and twirls in her satin layered dress to the plink plonk sound of a glockenspiel as snow falls. Liz Ranken is the movement director whose stamp is to give the productions from Shared Experience their physicality. We are watching a child wife, frivolous, excited by Christmas, the tree, also white, and presents, all white, for her children. Often as Norah talks of her father, he appears behind her in black topper and long black coat – an innovation. Krogstad crawls across the floor like a snake in despair as Torvald talks about his dismissal at the bank. The door opens in the course of the play and lets in the wind and dry brown leaves blow into this protected clinical world. 

Anne-Marie Duff as Norah, the flawed heroine, lucidly brings out all the contradiction of her part. Doll-like, yes; Torvald's “little song bird” is pretty and frivolous but she has also taken a decision to pay for her sick husband to have an essential holiday in Italy and obtains the money for this and pays it back by working secretly copying documents. With her priggish husband Torvald (Paterson Joseph), she acts the little girl. He is the parent, sometimes stern, sometimes indulgent but ultimately disloyal and hypocritical. Joseph is very much the censorious Victorian paterfamilias. In a telling moment he instructs Christine that she should embroider rather than knit because he considers it prettier to look at an embroiderer than to listen to the click clack of knitting needles. 

Which would keep you warm in a Nowegian winter? A warm sweater or a piece of delicate embroidery? In the first act of the play Norah seems superficial, material, conniving at her life in this house which protects her but is also a prison. Norah's scene where she flirts with their only visitor, Dr. Rank (Pip Donaghy), dying from spinal tuberculosis is played as almost music hall melodrama with a risqué element. The arrival of her impoverished friend Christine (Francesca Ryan) dressed in charcoal, heavy with a sad tale of drudge and deprivation, brings out Norah's sympathetic nature and reminds us that life outside the “prison” is not easy. 

Ibsen knew poverty at first hand as a child, his family went bankrupt when he was six. Jude Akuwudike as Krogstad looks down at heel from his first entrance. We are in no doubt from his appearance that his motivation is born out of desperation. Interestingly, the ending of A Doll's House where Norah chooses to leave her husband and children for a life supporting herself, for which she is ill-equipped, was substituted in some early productions by “a happy ending” which Ibsen described as a “barbarous outrage”. Maybe there are few women today who live as dolls, as Stepford wives, but we endlessly discuss differences between the psychological make-up of men and women and look at how women can succeed in what is still perceived as a man's world. So a production of A Doll's House can act as a stimulus for a reappraisal of gender and society. 

In a theatrical coup, this production ends as Norah leaves, unhooking the wall of the large house to part the walls, as if it too were a doll's house, to go out into the snow filled darkness. 
Written by Henrik Ibsen 
Translated by Michael Meyer
Directed by Polly Teale with Yvonne McDevitt

With: Anne-Marie Duff, Paterson Joseph, Jude Akuwudike, Eileen O'Brien, Francesca Ryan, Pip Donaghy
Design: Angela Davies
Lighting Design: Tina MacHugh
Company Movement: Liz Ranken 
Music: Gary Yershon
A Shared Experience Production. Their website:
Running time: Two hours 45 minutes with an interval
Box Office: 020 7369 1761
Booking to December 9th 2000
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on November 2nd 2000 performance at New Ambassadors Theatre West Street London 

©Copyright 2000, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.
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