A Doll House

A Doll House

Pan Pan (Ireland)

World Theatre Festival

Brisbane Powerhouse

13th – 17th February 2013


Featuring: Charlie Bonner, Pauline Hutton, Dermot Magennis, Áine Ní Mhuirí, Daniel Reardon, Judith Roddy.


Reviewed by Xanthe Coward


This production is so interesting. I didn’t love it and yet, I thoroughly enjoyed it and I admire what the company has…gotten away with! It’s the strangest thing. Also strange, was the common audience response to Pan Pan’s A Doll House, seen at Brisbane Powerhouse last week. It’s the World Theatre Festival, and anything goes, right? This piece might have served to represent contemporary theatre making at its most innovative and daring (and damn the consequences!), were it not for the fact that we’ve seen braver and more imaginative works here, in Brisbane, in the last few years. That’s not to say that A Doll House is any less important or interesting. In fact, it’s getting us talking and that in itself is important. This updated version is, as Director Gavin Quinn notes, “an investigation of the first modern play… I didn’t like the translations that existed, I needed to rewrite the play to make certain idioms come out of the actors’ mouths.”


Pan Pan’s production of A Doll House challenges our perceptions of what theatre is, or can be. At times it sounds like Ibsen’s classic script is barely in tact but it’s just a neat trick, with characters interjecting using the latest lingo, and tossing around contemporary references to keep us diving in and out of a text that is so familiar to so many, and still widely performed. When a reference to Thin Lizzy goes largely unnoticed by the older audience members, my mum proudly tells me she didn’t miss it. “I know who Thin Lizzy is!” (Wait. Did she mean she knew the band or the brand of mineral makeup? You can never tell with my mum!).


As housekeeper and nanny, Áine Ní Mhuirí gives us extensive notes, and stage directions from Ibsen’s text but in Act 1 her words are hard to hear and I’m not sure exactly what her efforts achieve, aside from setting up the traditional given circumstances, establishing our setting in the open space, with which the style and the action is inconsistent. There’s a doorway, and life size paper dolls, at first with their backs to us (later they are turned towards us and to finish, laid face down on the stage). Actual objects – a Christmas tree and a rocking chair – are brought on for Act 2 after they have already been imagined and the actions mimed. Did they forget them earlier?! No, of course not, it’s a style thing, a choice thing, like the girls we’ve seen recently wearing opaque tights as leggings…weird, and probably a poor choice (sorry girls but somebody had to say it), and they don’t seem to notice. It’s not about what it looks like, it’s about having the right to choose the image they are presenting to the world. Also, who can afford to keep up with blackmilkclothing.com?!


Then there are the random elements that add humour and make very little sense. An ironic extended rendition of The Carpenters’ Close to You draws bouts of giggles, murmurs and questioning faces from the audience. The acapella piece goes on for so long that it’s… awkward…and very funny, sort of, like a bad karaoke number at a private party…and it’s the birthday boy singing. Inexplicably, earlier in the piece, we had also enjoyed – sort of – the two girls singing together the second half of On My Own from Les Miserables. Why? Was it some symbolic nod to Nora’s original mental and emotional state preceding her self-empowerment and departure? I scold my inner voice. “Let’s quit questioning things and watch the show!”


The dialogue is a combination of direct delivery, turning heads and talking to us rather than to each other, and sudden emotional outbursts, also directed only vaguely at times towards the other characters. It’s as if, by manipulating text and proximity, they are alienating us, keeping us outside of a story that’s not nearly as relevant as it once was…or is it?


A Doll House


Ibsen’s title has been known through English translations as A Doll’s House. The Norwegian translation reminds us, “The house is not Nora’s, but the toy.” Nora is barely there but she puts on a good act, just like any good housewife: she’s happy and humming, skipping and dancing her way through the traditional Christmas celebrations; the hostess with the mostess. But like the shiny baubles that spill forth from the box she brings into the space, her world falls in pieces, and rolls away from her, glinting in a far corner. (Too much? So many aspects of this production were that much!). It’s as if she’s there, larger than life, to make up for the fact that in essence, she’s already gone.


As Nora, Judith Roddy is all there, and makes more of this role, in her physicality and her vocal work than I’ve seen from any other Nora. In short, so full of quirks and youthful exuberance, this production is all Roddy’s. But if there’s a deeper meaning, it comes and goes until the end.


A wonderful, sharply observed spiel about the merits of Wonderwoman and Lara Croft made a decent comparative study, and was one of the few intertextual surprises that worked. Not until the final conversation between Norah and Torvald, delivered from their positions lying in bed (on opposite sides of the stage), did we see beyond the facades created by odd costuming and over-the-top delivery modes.


It’s an unexpected dissection by Pan Pan and Quinn – certainly the most challenging reading of the play I’ve been exposed to in terms of its “contemporary” nature and the meta-theatrics exposed along the way – and it’s almost as if, once pulled apart and analysed, it doesn’t quite fit back together again. Imagine Mr G opening the high school wardrobe department with the class, and casting by offering costumes to whomever they fit! It’s a strong ensemble though, and there’s no mistaking each character for who they are.


A Doll House


If you look at Pan Pan’s history, and their intentions for this work, the company is creating theatre. That’s all. They’re not going out of their way to sell us a new, neat version of women’s lib here, but they’re making fun, zany theatre that asks us to reconsider the big issues. I don’t think they care whether we learn or grow or not. It’s theatre. It’s entertainment.



There are so many incongruous elements at work here that I’m sure some will hail this production as a work of genius, and others will see it more as a study of the fun, the ridiculous. Pan Pan’s A Doll House is an entertaining, moving, challenging night of theatre. And that’s why we continue to see as much as we can and enjoy these oddball gems with their classic roots. Sometimes that’s the best sort of theatre we can be exposed to. The unexpected, no-rules, ridiculous, fun sort!


A Doll House


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