Marriage is rich ground for conflict, having inspired countless dramatic examinations of hetero marital dynamics through the centuries. In this new adaptation of the 19th century classic, recognisable conversations about gender roles, freedom, and love demonstrate the timelessness of marriage stories under patriarchy.
Henrik Ibsen wrote A Doll’s House in 1879 when it was still illegal for women to conduct financial business without approval by their male supervisor. Other than that legislation, much is unchanged in the plot of Joanna Murray-Smith’s new adaptation which follows Nora (Chantelle Jamieson) and husband Torvald (James Lugton) as they welcome guests into their home over the Christmas season. The first guest is a surprise, Nora’s university friend Kristina (Lizzie Schebesta) who Nora hasn’t seen in years. They reminisce about their school days while also recounting what they’ve each missed over the years: Nora’s marriage to Torvald and the death of her father, Kristina’s marriage, her husband’s death, her destitution, and her mother’s death. They’re both well and truly adults now with a lot of comparing to be made between their disparate trajectories in terms of luck and fortune. The other guests are Torvald’s including old friend George (Tim Walter) and a disgruntled employee Krogstad (David Soncin). Despite the festive cheer in Nora and Torvald’s home, Nora becomes desperate to maintain appearances when Krogstad threatens to reveal an illegal loan Nora took out when their family was struggling. The revelation would ruin the equilibrium of Nora’s life from Torvald’s new fancy job to the marriage that she treasures so much.
Murray-Smith’s adaptation is faithful to the original, revealing how remarkably well Ibsen’s characters slip into a modern context. Under Mark Kilmurry’s direction, the conversations are realistic as they move between polite small-talk and much tenser negotiations of risk and reward. Since its debut, A Doll’s House has lived through the Suffragettes of the early 20th century and second wave feminism in the 1960s and 70s to come out the other side as astute as it always was. Nora’s characterisation is complex as a woman wearing the many labels applied to her by the people in her life; pretty and charismatic for Torvald, silly and selfish for Kristina, ignorant and manipulable for Krogstad, and alluringly unattainable for George. At the same time, she fulfils her roles as mother, wife, friend, and client without seeming to gain any power in return. So, when her treachery is revealed to Torvald and he in turn reveals himself, it becomes finally clear that no matter how well Nora performs nor how many people she pleases, she will remain dispensable.
It’s also worth noting that Nora’s experience of womanhood, motherhood, and marriage is a bourgeoise one. Thus her unhappiness with her position as a housewife and her decision to leave her family for self-fulfilment in a prophetic precursor to the Feminine Mystique and the Female Eunuch attract the same class criticism as these texts in their time and today. And yet, the image of a woman, a figure so often of prostration and sacrifice, turning around and leaving is still powerful as a symbol of defiance and disruption.
Considering the class system represented in the production, the set design by Veronique Benett turned the small Ensemble stage into a cozy, upmarket living room with trendy mid-century modern touches. The use of a back wall to create a hallway, separate piano room, and Torvald’s office was effective for delineating Torvald’s private domain and the shared spaces of their home. However, the living room layout was unusual with the large leather couch placed directly in front of one audience wing, directing their viewing attention to the back of the heads of the actors who sat on it for prolonged conversations. While this may have amplified the voyeuristic feeling of the production, it read more as ill-conceived. The lighting design by Verity Hampson worked to increase the tension of Nora’s life and death stakes by integrating cool transitions and loose spotlights into an otherwise warm design. The moments in between confrontations when Nora was alone with her thoughts were key emotional beats supported by Daryl Wallis’s minimal sound design that amplified Nora’s ragged, distressed breathing. While Nora often glided over the implications of her wealth, the production design of her comfortable home provided the concrete reminder of her social position.
Jamieson’s performance as the conflicted Nora started off as jumpy and overly enthusiastic as she welcomed her old friend Kristina into her home with big smiles and bigger gestures. But as the tension grew, Jamieson tightened into a more brittle and more desperate character that was compelling for her commitment to the merry facade. Opposite her, Lugton’s Torvald had more symbolism than substance but he certainly drew some scoffs of recognition from the audience in his about-face near the end of the script. Schebesta, Walter, and Soncin offered well-developed characters as they orbited Nora and Torvald, providing the necessary voices of morality, desire, and violence to uncover their faulty marriage. Kilmurry’s direction found a sweet spot in the tone between melodrama and sitcom that captured a uniquely modern energy that translated the characters easily into their new context. In this way, the characterisations felt less like commentary on morality or legality, but rather on human frailty and forgiveness.
The mess at the centre of A Doll’s House represents the meeting place of social pressure and personal responsibility where Nora has to reconcile what she wants with what she should want and the added consequences of power, reputation, and responsibility. While the material circumstances of her predicament are idealised, the woman’s negotiation of her expected role remains a pertinent conversation some 150 years after Ibsen. In this polished adaptation, the resonance of those intervening years rings clearly.
A Doll’s House is running at the Ensemble Theatre from June 10th – July 16th
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