A Doll’s House review (La Boite, Brisbane)

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There’s something rotten in the state of Denmark. Sorry, make that Norway.  It’s obvious from the set, a dilapidated construction overhung by a drooping tangle of dead wisteria hanging from the ceiling. There is indeed a parquet floor, which suggests an upper-middle class 19th interior, but here it’s made out of giant-sized, rough wooden slats instead of highly-polished timber. It’s obvious 5×5 construction also suggest a games board, which alerts us to the games about to be played. Add to this four elegant dining chairs, each of which has part of one leg cut off, and you know that this is no conventional Doll’s House.

Ibsen’s original play, first performed in 1879, caused an uproar, as it was seen as arguing against all 19th century norms concerning the relevant positions of men and women in society. It ends with Nora, the heroine, trapped in a pretty cage but finally deciding to leave both her husband and children to fulfil her own individual destiny, rather than being defined by her role as wife and mother. Ibsen always insisted that he had not consciously written a play about “women’s rights”, but about the rights of the individual, but for all that it has always been regarded by feminists as one of the first pieces of serious literature to take up the cause of women’s equality with men.

Prolific playwright Lally Katz has produced her own version of Ibsen’s classic, and some of her changes are radical and fascinating. In the first instance, in the Ibsen version, Nora’s husband Torvald refers to her as a little squirrel, but Katz changes this to hummingbird, thus reinforcing the idea of a caged bird. It also allows the introduction of music into the play, with some almost toneless recitative from Nora (Helen Christinson) and her friend Kristine (Cienda McNamara) acting as a kind of soliloquy, during which time the lights go down.

Composer Dane Alexander also has a heavy rock band behind the translucent curtain at the back of the thrust stage, and combines snatches of Mozart and Handel — and were they a few snatches of J S Bach that I heard? — as well as more modern heavy metal, played at such a high volume that it behoved the audience to leave the theatre during the second interval, and which continued at a more subdued volume but with a throbbing ground bass right through the final act. This didn’t work for me, but some of the audience loved it.

And so to the direction of the play itself. It’s culturally very eclectic, with references to all kinds of Victorian literature. We have Omar Khayyam, with a moving finger writing on the translucent curtain, which unfortunately those of us at the side sections of the theatre couldn’t see very well. The characters are all played as marionettes, moving stiffly and jerkily, referencing, I thought, Thackeray’s great comment at the end of his Vanity Fair –“come, children, let us shut up the box and the puppets, for our play is played out”.

The characters are also like something from a melodramatic version of a Dickens’ novel, with obvious but very effective design tricks including ghostly white make-up, Dolly Vardin dresses for Nora (you could almost see her on the top of a crocheted toilet roll), greenish costumes for the slimy Krogstad (Chris Beckey), and sombre grey clothes and make-up for the dying syphilitic Dr Rank (Damien Cassidy).  Torvald himself, Nora’s husband, played by Hugh Parker, is the stiffest of them all, but I did wonder about what appeared to be a bustle under his tail-coat — was this supposed to suggest an incipient femininity, or just clumsy tailoring?

None of them ever looked another in the eye, or even turned their bodies towards each other when speaking, another effective alienation technique that nevertheless detracted from any human emotion and tested the audience’s ability to change their expectations. The twenty-something actor who sat next to me had never seen an Ibsen play before, and knew nothing about A Doll’s House, was so bowled over by both concept and creation, that she roared her appreciation of any feminist remarks and sneered at Torvald’s overt sexism.

Overall this is a brilliant attempt at a re-interpretation of one of the greatest political plays of all time. With director Steven Mitchell Wright’s in-your-face direction and Lally Katz’s inventive new script, it can hardly fail.

But did we really need the long, indigestible diatribe from Nora just before she leaves the house, a diatribe straight out of first-wave 1970s feminism which laboriously sets out what everyone knows in the 21st century, and which the play presents in a dramatic, rather than didactic, form?

We came to see a play, not listen to a political sermon, and this appeared to spoil the production for some of the audience. You’ve already made your point by your actions, Nora. Walk out the door and leave us to figure it out. You go, girl!

[box]A Doll’s House  is part of the Brisbane Festival at La Boite Theatre until September 27. Main image by Dylan Evans of Nora (Helen Christinson) and Torvald (Hugh Parker). Click here for tickets.[box]


One response to “A Doll’s House review (La Boite, Brisbane)

  1. Having seen this version of the play I would recommend it to others. It was challenging to enjoy, as it was so different, but I am glad I saw it.

    I to found the ‘alienation technique’ where performers never faced each other initially annoying, but it all clicked for me when I noticed this technique wasn’t being used for certain scenes eg. the big bad wolf; a brief moment between Kristine and Krogstad; and Nora’s ‘diatribe’ at the end.

    I focused on the women’s rights / patriarchal society theme however individual’s rights also came through. This doll’s house was Torvald’s creation / view of the world (affecting Nora and Krogstad) but Kristine’s choices in life also contributed to this world view.

    I thought the use of contemporary music for the last act (is this a play or a rave?) and the change in persona / normalisation of the actors effectively emphasised the message in the play.

    I found, during the ‘diatribe’ at the end, the discussion pertaining to the wedding rings particularly poignant.

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