A CurtainUp London
A Doll's House
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.
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
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.
|A DOLL'S HOUSE
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: www.setheatre.co.uk
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