What: A Doll’s House
Where: Dunstan Playhouse
When: Until 22nd July
How Much: Adult $74, Concession $64, Under 30 $33, Primary/Secondary Student $29
The dilettante writing this review has recently discovered that Henrik Ibsen is the second most performed playwright after Shakespeare – the official guide (recommended reading!) and promotional material is quick to highlight this. While the canonisation of Shakespeare’s work obscures its origins as popular entertainment, the ‘realism’ that characterises Ibsen’s work speaks through Elena Carapetis’ adaptation of A Doll’s House, dramatising the trials and tribulations of everyday life in fin de siècle Denmark placed in an Australian context.
Upending expectations, a set bringing to mind the stage from The Voice is revealed as the curtain rises, and seemed to foreshadow the self-aware performances to follow. The plot centres around Nora Helmer (played by Miranda Daughtry), a woman making ends meet and consolidating her identity at odds with the prevalent constrictive social views of womanhood. The audience’s frustration is palpable as Nora is pitted in a losing struggle against these expectations, embodied by her doting, but patriarchal husband Torvald (Dale March). The interactions between husband and wife are overly dramatic, simultaneously highlighting the contrived nature of their relationship and the use of wit to deliver what is otherwise left unsaid. This benign but artificial dynamic between Nora’s family and friends unravels as she reveals the fraud she has committed in order to support Torvald during a period of illness, at which point the director begins to insert a contemporary flavour to the story which is otherwise left intact.
Torvald’s debilitating illness is a mental illness, a contemporary affliction that reinforces the character as a serial careerist, ignorant to the privilege and the silent struggles of his wife who delicately props up his ego. Torvald is mirrored by the wretched Dr. Rank (Nathan O’Keefe), who is played with a disarming sense of humour in this adaptation; less ‘doctor-ly’ and more the ubiquitous male friend whose companionship is genuine, regardless of his unrequited feelings for Nora.
The dynamic culminates in a memorable segment in which the panoptic nature of the male gaze on Nora is explored in abstract, and both male characters are complicit; like much of the play, old power imbalances lurk underneath comparatively informal social norms. To drive this point home, Anne (Anna Steen) and Kristine (Rachel Burke) remain largely unchanged from their original incarnations as a motherly figure/nanny and empowered confidant to Nora, highlighting the continued existence of these roles a century on.
The most poignant change of tone is perhaps the inspired casting of Rashidi Edward as Krogstad. As in the original Krogstad is an employee of Torvald, but emphasis is placed on a new prior relationship as a classmate and peer of equal standing. His original unsettling introduction is inverted nicely when the audience is presented not with an antagonist that is inherently scheming and manipulative in a manner inherent to his social standing, but an immigrant POC forced into the position by circumstances beyond his control. He shares with Nora the desperation of a person who, by necessity bends social expectations in order to meet their ends.
Nora is eventually exposed for her fraud, but the problem quickly resolves in a manner that reveals the strengths and vulnerabilities of each of the characters’ gender roles. This famously sets up the ‘bang heard across the world’, though it across as either prosaic in its delivery or quaint in its resolution. The translation of the exposition Nora delivers was perhaps incendiary for its time, but was presented to an audience accustomed to its self-affirming sentiment, which made the gesture seem slightly naive. Similarly, translating the mannerisms of each character into contemporary language turned caricatured their effect, leaving you wondering whether a period-accurate representation, with the suspension of disbelief that entails would have been more effective. Ultimately, A Doll’s House is as much an essay on the process of translating Ibsen and the difficulties of finding a contemporary ‘realism’ within the source material as it was about the characters themselves.
3 out of 5 stars
– Tin Do