THEATRE – A DOLL’S HOUSE
by Adam Smith
A Doll’s House is home to Nora, a housewife who was “made to be happy”. Provided for by her father and now her husband, Nora unravels her life upon the reappearance of an old friend. The encounter reveals to Nora that her blissful existence is not as happy as she thought. Ibsen’s play was viewed as a sensational attack on marriage norms when it was first produced in 1879. Although the play has lost none of its power as a feminist text, its world is harder to recognise in modern society. What better way of refreshing and playing with this classic text than to use female actors only?
Theatre Delicatessen’s version of Ibsen’s play is an exciting start to the forthcoming fringe year. The male characters are portrayed as men: the actors wear brogues, deepen their voices and sit with one ankle atop the opposite knee. There is a delightful subtlety in their portrayal: they are very male, but never fully convincing as men. It is this delicate balance that is somehow unnerving or tense – and forever engaging. One sits transfixed, hearing Nora’s husband Torvald as he tries to seduce her, or listening to his friend, the good Doctor Rank, break apart his own masculine resolve. Many lines are afforded more poignancy due to the cross-dressing. In some ways, another character’s tale of his downfall in society is sadder since it spoken by a female actor.
Therein, of course, lies the problem with the laudable decision to stage it in this way. The fine line, walked expertly by the actors, between being a man but still recognisable as a woman, can pull the audience out of the action. It is not easy to forget that one is not peering in to Nora’s Norwegian doll house, but is actually watching a performance in a pop-up playhouse in London.
There is probably no way around this: cast women who can actually trick the audience into believing that they are men and both the subtlety and purpose of the experiment are lost.
That this is an experiment is also reflected in the fact that it is not loyal to the original text. It is adapted by poet and playwright Sophie Reynolds, who says: “I hoped to bring some fluency and lightness to a play that sometimes feels bogged down by a complicated plot and heavy, formal language. I wanted to set the story free from its original, corseted, claustrophobic nineteenth-century setting, and let Nora’s hope, fear and expectation breathe in the lighter air of a contemporary society.”
Here, the production has set itself another uneasy task. The power in Ibsen’s play comes from the subtlety in its text. It may be very repressed in the usual nineteenth-century way, but breathing modern air into it may extinguish the fire at its heart. The language in Reynolds’ adaptation is crisp and clear. The play unfolds and turns on a number of memorable lines. As Nora realises the oppression of domesticity, she notes: “It doesn’t feel very Christmassy any more, does it?”
But Reynolds is also clumsy. Some plot elements are mishandled, only half-adapted, leaving loose threads hanging. And some of her attempts at contemporary language rely on cliché. “I need to be by myself and find out who I am,” says Nora, a line straight out of a mid-nineties TV drama. The project to update does not end with the language: at one crucial moment, Nora appears in modern dress. It is a flawed directorial decision that wounds the production’s otherwise understated style and, moreover, once again pulls the audience out of the play.
Theatre Delicatessen’s A Doll’s House is bold. That it feels more like an experiment than a play means that it will live and die on the fringe – but it will still force its audience to consider gender roles in the twenty-first century.
Nowhere else will you find women playing men in this way. The play is worth it just for that. But here’s a tip: arrive early enough to seize a conventional seat in the front rows. The rear row comprises uncomfortable stools for which the unlucky occupant requires lumber support.
A Doll’s House by Ibsen, adapted by Sophie Reynolds, is at 3–4 Picton Place, the current home of Theatre Delicatessen, until 4th February