For audiences today, A Doll’s House is discomforting for quite different reasons to those that proved so controversial at its first performance in 1879. A play that became instrumental in the movement for women’s rights, A Doll’s House follows the marriage of Nora and Torvald Helmer over a period of three days, during which their marriage is stretched to breaking point by personal secrets coming out into the open. Its original critics were shocked by Ibsen’s conclusion, where Nora leaves her husband and children in order to escape the strictures of a male-dominated society, abandoning her family home to embark upon a process of self-discovery. But watching the play in twenty-first century Britain, it is not Nora’s decision to leave that is unsettling. Instead, it is her treatment at the hands of her husband, in a relationship which to contemporary eyes borders upon abusive.
Poor Player Productions’ rendition, currently running at the Keble O’Reilly, capitalises on these tensions by transporting Nora and her family to the late 1950s. This was an era that saw the emergence of second-wave feminism, a point at which both Nora and Torvald’s behaviour could be viewed with either sympathy or derision. In a fluid English translation by Simon Stephens, Ibsen’s text fitted its new setting well, assisted by meticulous set and costume design (by Miles Blacket and Myfanwy Davies).
Clare Saxby’s and Femi Nylander’s performances as Nora and Torvald were comfortable, but were a little underpowered next to their supporting cast. In particular, Kathy Peacock and Ieuan Perkins shone as Kristine and Doctor Rank. Afflicted by a hereditary illness, providing a physical manifestation of the social ills that Ibsen perceives around him (Eyolf Allmer in Little Eyolf being another notable example), Rank brings some of the greatest nuance to A Doll’s House. Alongside Krogstad (played excellently by Tom Marshall), who uses amoral means to atone for a past misdeed and provide for his children, these auxiliary characters move the play beyond its concerns with gender politics to reflect more broadly on death and debt, ambition and a more fraternal form of love.
For the most part the realist set design provided a pleasing backdrop, despite momentary flaws that detracted from the onstage action — the very obviously plastic baby sticks in the memory, as do the abrupt lighting changes whenever Krogstad entered or left the stage. Act III was one of the strongest in this regard, with the lighting design (by John Evans) complementing the atmosphere of intimidating intimacy between Nora and Torvald. Focus was centred entirely on the uncomfortable interactions between the two, from Torvald’s attempt to assault Nora to his proclamation that ‘You’re my most treasured possession. … You’re mine.’
The issues that Ibsen’s text explores — gender politics, guilt, loneliness, illness, debt handling — are as relevant today or in 1959 as they were when A Doll’s House was published. In most places, Poor Player Productions rose to the challenge of Ibsen’s writing: the scenes between Kristine and Nora were particularly sensitively handled, bringing to the fore Ibsen’s exceptional female characterisation; Nylander presented a suitably pompous Torvald, while Perkins and Marshall captured the multifaceted personalities of Rank and Krogstad to perfection. This production will not revolutionise Ibsen performance, but what it does it does well. However for a play that is so often staged that it was the most performed play in the world in 2006 (the centennial of Ibsen’s death), it takes something exceptional to stand out amongst the drama’s rich performance tradition, a level that unfortunately remained just beyond the reach of this staging.
‘A Doll’s House’ runs at the Keble O’Reilly until 16th May; tickets are available here.