Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Thursday 2nd February, 2012
This is an adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. The original was shocking in its day – a domestic melodrama with a surprise ending – so I was interested to see what a more up-to-date version would bring.
In short: bafflement and disengagement.
The set is the dour living-room of Nora’s flat. With sparse, minimalist furniture, the only colour in it comes from the Christmas tree and decorations that she has brought in – and from Nora herself. There is a large fish tank with two goldfish, eating, swimming and shitting for all to see. The dimensions of the set mirror the shape of the aquarium. The inference is we are observers of two people with their privacy made public. Watching the tank we project human characteristics onto the fish. Watching the stage, we see human characteristics thrown back at us. It is a metaphor, of course, for the restrictive confines of Nora’s marriage.
She begins the play dressed like a little girl and her manner supports the view that she is more than a little emotionally immature. Her husband, the boorish and patronising Torvald (David Michaels) infantilises her. In Ibsen’s day, the domineering husband would not be unusual but times have changed.
When we watch a period drama, or a play written long ago, our values and social mores are highlighted by how much they differ from those represented on the stage. And so we are not shocked or disgusted by Ibsen’s Nora when she packs her bags and leaves. We cheer her on. In this contemporary setting, Torvald’s outdated Chauvinism marks him out as the weirdo. The play is no longer a comment on society but a view of a particular marriage: the boor and the woman-child. The mores are outdated and clash with the furniture. Characters pussyfoot around supposedly unmentionable topics in a manner that does not ring true. Then at one point Nora jumps up onto a seat and yells, “Kiss my arse!” in a moment of childish rebellion. It jars but not for the right reasons.
As the plot takes hold and Nora finds herself further entrenched in blackmail, the oddities of the staging also come to the fore. It seems people can just walk in to the flat without so much as knocking the door. Perhaps the absence of any barrier to people wandering in is why Torvald has a lockable letterbox on the living room wall. A bizarre decision – any mail that arrives for him would have travelled through the house before it reached his strongbox. It makes no sense. Ibsen has Torvald’s letterbox sensibly off-stage where the implied front door is. Because these characters are restricted by their fish tank world, they (and we) have to live with design ideas that do not work.
With exposure and ruin averted, Torvald strips naked to make love to his girl-woman wife. He has wagged his finger at her and told her off and now he’s going to assert himself over her in another way. And this is where Nora sees him as he really is. It is an epiphany that leads to a complete turnaround in her outlook and behaviour. She grows up overnight, rejects him and the life and children they have had together and walks out, leaving him naked, exposed and vulnerable.
She steps through the proscenium-like structure, from the fish tank and into the real world. I don’t fancy her chances; we know what happens when fish jump from aquaria. (Perhaps I’m talking the metaphor too far.)
As Nora, Penny Layden annoys and infuriates – during the opening scenes, at any rate. This throws her transformation into an independence-seeking woman into starker contrast. The final scene is electrifying and powerfully performed. Her Nora leaves the oppressive weirdo and we applaud her.
Ibsen’s Nora rejects an entire society, a forerunner of feminism, calling out for social change. The updating loses this aspect. It is about a particular marriage and not an indictment of marriage in general. I don’t think it is as relevant as it would like to be.