Henrik Ibsen’s claustrophobic classic still fresh and controversial.
A woman breaks the law borrowing money to save her husband from a killing frost. It is illegal for women to take a debt without a male guarantor – so she forges her dead father’s signature. He passed three days before, without her presence. She is proud of herself for her initiative. We meet her scrimping and saving to makes all repayments – but she has put herself in the power of a man who will do anything to maintain his self-respect. Soon her husband, a bank manager who values financial integrity above all, will unknowingly accuse her of poisoning her family through the deception. She considers suicide to avoid the damage to his reputation.
None of these people are evil. They are trapped within an evil system, their choices stoppered by tradition and bigotry and hatred of women.
A Doll’s House is at its heart a political play. Written in 19th century Norway and inspired by real events, it is one of Henrik Ibsen’s famous “problem plays”, confronting the audience directly in a realistic way with the tragic consequences of an ingrained but tolerated social wrong – in this case the inequality at the heart of the modern family. And it is a confronting play. Nora, the flighty and seemingly shallow lead character, is almost raped by her husband, a clock-work civil servant (Hugh Parker). Every character is ugly in his or her own way, even the allegedly gorgeous, doll-like Nora (Helen Christinson, who is divine). The only humour in Ibsen’s masterpiece is the vicious, black comedy of the gallows.
If you’ve so far missed out seeing Henrik Ibsen’s play in person, I would firmly recommended La Boite’s version – even if you studied it in school. For those who are veterans, I’d likewise recommend La Boite’s version as unique and powerful re-imagination of the classic. A Doll’s House is truly one of the highlights of Brisbane Festival so far.
Nora spends like as an object not a subject, a reward to be earned like a trophy. Her husband never treats her as a real human, just as a beautiful doll – to be played with, or admired, mocked or ravished as the desire takes him. She has no agency, no ability to shape her own destiny – or so we think.
Nora is a mother of two. Significantly, in La Boite’s version we never actually meet her children. They exist as a moral obligation, not as real people.
Director Steve Mitchell Wright has these viciously well-meaning staring past each other, interacting not with their neighbours, but the air opposite. The effect is impossible to describe in words. There are, at my count, only three occasions when characters actually look eye-to-eye, and interact. I won’t tell you when they are; to do so would ruin the impact. Needless to say, it is an allegory for the alienation at the heart of this domestic system. People exist for each other as a way to get something, not ends in themselves. All of the characters are physically and emotionally ugly individuals, shallow, grim, inflexible or dour.
Moving on. Why is this adaption so successful? How do you breathe new life into an over-played classic? It is the most staged play in the world – how do you re-imagine it without either ruining Ibsen’s original or changing so little it becomes stale?
Dan Potra, the play’s legendary designer, probably deserves a fair share of the credit. La Boite’s set looks like an organic thing. As the play goes on it shifts and tightens and constricts the characters in a web of missed opportunities and time passed. Eventually, the set literally almost crashes down on the head of Torvald’s benign misogyny.
The music is another coup. Almost the entire show has what you might call a backing track. Throughout the play, speakers play the same music on repeat (primarily Vivaldi), with an almost minimalist feel. This repetition is both intentionally aggravating and eerily familiar, almost soothing. The music was the work of Dane Alexander – he also wrote a dozen or so songs the characters sing, in a kind of Shakespearean soliloquy. At least once, he also plays Shostakovich’s Eighth and most traumatic String Quartet to underline the tragedy of a particularly heartbreaking moment.
He quickly establishes a sense that something is deeply wrong behind the faces of this crazed society. Much of this incredible sense of building tension in La Boite’s Doll’s House can be attributed to Alexander’s musical decisions.
Speaking of original – to La Boite’s credit, they’ve made a few fairly daring revisions to the play. Almost all of them worked, and they worked almost perfectly. The most noticeable changes – and, in my view, the most powerful – are some script edits to Nora’s epic monologue near the end of the last act. The rage-filled rant is already a powerful, direct attack on her husband’s disgraceful disrespect for her and on society’s sexist assumptions. But Lally Katz, the playwright responsible for these edits, is very careful here. It might be easy for us to pretend that the problems raised in this “problem play” – inequal treatment and disrespect for women within the law, for instance – have been overcome in the 135 years of meantime since the play was written. Katz will not allow us the complacent comfort of that lie. At the height of her impassioned monologue, Nora name-checks internet porn as grievance. It sticks out; it’s meant to. The anachronism makes a brutally direct point – we have not yet fixed this. Are we really living in a society with equality between men and women, even today? Are we really no longer bound by the chains of gender norms and unfair, constricting social expectations? No. Brilliant, controversial stuff.
On the other hand, there was one director’s decision I was a bit mystified by. At the very end of the show, a backlit Nora appears suddenly in silhouette in time with a big crashing chord, horror-film style. I’m sure this was meant to be symbolic in some way, but I just plain didn’t get it. Perhaps I am too dim to understand the allegory (pun intended).
The play’s real end is Nora slamming a door in her husband’s face. This is for once a symbol of freedom, not alienation. In an alternative, ludicrous ending written by the director under pressure, the couple kiss and make up and live happily ever after in slavery. In many ways, Doll’s House, for all its bleak, harsh ugliness ends much more happily than this depressing status quo, deeply exultant in the freedom of Nora’s rebellion.
Of course, there were many others responsible for the absolute triumph that this play is and was. Ben Hughes’ lighting was pretty masterly, for instance. Damien Cassidy’s hilariously grim Doctor Rank is another hero. I left the playhouse in tears, and totally satisfied by the experience. It is some of the greatest theatre I’ve ever seen.
So, to end how I began: everyone that can get tickets should see this play.