Touring – reviewed at Tara Arts Theatre, London
When it was first performed in 1879, Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House challenged the values and practices of society. At the time, women didn’t have the right to vote, couldn’t borrow money under their own name and were essentially the property of men. Ibsen’s play, however, not only highlighted that women were every bit as moral, intelligent and responsible as men, natural law dictated that they had the same rights to liberty, independent of menfolk. And if that meant leaving soul-crushing marriages, so be it…
In recent years there have been a number of classic European plays adapted and transposed to modern day London such as Lorca’s Yerma and Chekhov’s Three Sisters. The reason? There’s a timeless qualities to these plays, but there are aspects when framed correctly, that resonate with the sexual politics of the 21st century….
Written by Venetia Twigg and Alice Knapton, and directed by Alice Sillet, Theatrical Niche’s production of A Doll’s House homes in on the psychological aspects of the characters. The bones of the original play are still present, but whereas originally the audience looked at the narrative in isolation, Theatrical Niche’s production juxtaposes this with a discourse about mental health. Utilising choreography by Amy Lawrence, the cast through movement and the spoken word indirectly give a context to the play’s 21st-century world.
Torvald Helmer (Henry Regan) has been recently promoted at his firm. With a new autobiography also published, Torvald can expect to be financially solvent for the foreseeable future. Celebrating this change in fortune, Nora (Knapton) does some last minute shopping for the festive season. However, on the night before Christmas, there’s certainly stirring, with visitors aplenty.
Daily visitor Dr Daniel Rank (Joseph McCarthy) makes an appearance, as does old friend Christine Linde (Sheri Sadd) and the disreputable Nils Krogstad (McCarthy again). Krogstad suspects that under Torvald’s management, his job would be on the line, and he’s not prepared to go down without a fight. As a yummy mummy, Nora also has Annie (Venetia Twigg) as her in-house nanny looking after the children. Initially happy to see them, developments in the play lead to Nora’s worries get the better of her and keeps them at a distance…
One of the most inspired aspects of this production is showing how from a mental health perspective, it isn’t Nora who is necessarily under the most psychological pressure. In this version of the play, Torvald still goes overseas to convalesce, but he neglects to mention (or rather dares not admit to himself) that he had prolonged counselling during this period. The way he acts towards Nora though – ‘gaslighting’ so that she is the ‘weakest link’ – is a classic manipulation technique and in Torvald’s own mind, Krogstad has leverage over him as he knew him before he made his name. Krogstad, however, has a very understandable reason for fearing for his job, as the festive season is the worst time of the year to be made destitute, especially with a young family in tow.
While the ‘illegality’ of a woman signing forms dates the original play, having a person today accrue an inordinate amout of debt is very much a sign of the times and one that can undermine even the most solid of marriages…
In terms of staging, this production eschews naturalism for a Brechtian approach, showing just enough of walls and furniture to convey this is a facsimilie of reality. As part of the choreography, objects may passed ‘through the walls’ as would happen with a doll’s house and characters occasionally confront invisible barriers – held back by the invisible, emotional baggage they carry around with them.
I’ve seen numerous productions of A Doll’s House over the years, but this is the first one that’s fleshed out what was hiding in plain sight – the overarching weight of the characters’ worries and what their respective fears compels them to do.