A Doll’s House
La Boite & Brisbane Festival
September 10 – 27 2014
Reviewed by Xanthe Coward
Concision in style, precision in thought, decision in life.
Writer, Lally Katz, and Director, Steven Mitchell Wright, have recreated A Doll’s House for a new generation.
I’m not sure exactly what the new generation will get from it though because I feel the conclusion is slightly skewed. Is it just me? I always wonder what other people will take away from a show. I think the opening night crowd loved it! But the ending? Not so much.
The feminist message is so overstated by the conclusion of this production that I feel sure I would have been happier to miss the final gear change and escape before the end, still anticipating, as Lally’s mum’s English teacher put it, “the door slam that was heard all over the world.”
The end of the three acts is an anomaly, completely at odds with the style and sophistication of the rest of the piece. The poorly matched bag and shoe colour-blocking fashion statement takes us defiantly back to the eighties, the music brings us well and truly into the nineties, and its strangely staunch feminist diatribe, after the fluid, modern, poetic language of the play, transports us stubbornly back to the seventies, when women’s lib was a thing. Okay, so it’s still a thing (it’s always been a thing), but in a very different way. In this country at least, we’ve been talking intelligently for a while now about equal rights, without having to burn our Honey Birdette bras and shout about it from the rooftops. In fact, I listened last weekend to Tara Moss talk very intelligently about it. (She’s actually my new favourite public person, right up there with our Cate).
At the risk of repeating myself, allow me to explain. I don’t want you to avoid seeing A Doll’s House because the ending is wrong for our time and place.
Like all good drama, the play speaks for itself. We don’t need the contemporary voice here to sum it all up in case we missed the point, in case we’re stupid. It just doesn’t ring true. Until this point Lally’s version is exceptionally clear – there’s no missing the message in this fresh and insightful adaptation – and when the essence of Ibsen’s original play (illuminated more brightly than ever through the beautiful, subtle changes in text and Mitchell Wright’s unnerving, alienating staging), is lost in the explanation, it’s like listening to the host of the party trying to break down a joke when someone doesn’t laugh at the punchline. Look, seriously, sorry, but the thing is this: if you’re having to explain a joke at your own event you need a) a new guest list and/or b) new material.
Admittedly, I was feeling slightly wary of Steven Mitchell Wright’s treatment of Lally’s updated text. (Wary is my defense mechanism. I don’t like to be disappointed). By this I mean, after recently experiencing The Danger Ensemble’s very challenging Caligula, I went into A Doll’s House not knowing what to expect! (N.B. This is a good thing in theatre). This neat team comprises Lally Katz and Steven Mitchell Wright, and Designer, Dan Potra, Lighting Designer, Ben Hughes, and Composer & Sound Designer, Dane Alexander. Hughes’ lighting states and Alexander’s soundscape whisper discreetly together, with NCIS ad break clunks to punctuate plot points and the innermost thoughts and feelings of the characters, until the ambience morphs into some sort of subterranean club scene. I’m already freezing and by the time I begin to visibly shiver I have to get out. I’ve never been so cold in The Roundhouse. The temperature and the volume are moving in opposite directions, forcing me outside into the marginally more comfortable night air of the Theatre Republic. It’s so discomforting it’s brilliant. Talk about experiencing the theatre! When I go back in, the space is still too loud and too cold and too small. It’s claustrophobic and if it were hot it’d be cloying. Because I’m still freezing I’m tapping my foot in spite of myself. It’s so not tapping-your-foot-to-the-music music. It’s music to go mad to. (And the bass clearly takes others to the point of madness about three quarters of the way through the final act, persisting underneath something classical, but I don’t mind it. I’ve slid down venue doors and heard that beat for hours longer. It’s sort of vaguely comforting, and it makes me think, responsibly, “THE BATON PASSES ON!”)
The company has achieved something extraordinary with this play (because let’s just forget that dreadful ending ever happened), which is to create an entirely new experience of one of our greatest feminist (or rather, free choice) plays. I always loathed it until I read it so many times I loved it. Nora annoyed me, and yet I chose A Doll’s House for an extended study unit in Senior Theatre (back when we called it just Drama). I designed costumes and a shoebox set, complete with actual doll’s house furniture. I didn’t consider this to be cheating; I thought it demonstrated my initiative, and an uncanny ability to source precisely whatever it was the production needed. It’s taken years for my skills to be truly appreciated in an actual theatre. Anyway.
Potra’s creepy Grimm Brothers’ fairytale hair cum forest trees and tendrils (Wisteria Lane, anyone?) literally trap the inhabitants of Torvald’s house – a sort of a Sleeping Rapunzel Beauty effect – and the first few times our actors break into song, I expect to hear the princes’ refrain from Sondheim’s Into the Woods. (When they don’t sing it, I hear it inside my head anyway!). It’s a device that allows the opportunity for melodrama and many mini comedic moments. Each song also offers a glimpse at the complex machinations of the characters. But what I suspect is that it may simply be a bemused statement on musical theatre. I could be wrong…
I love the clever, slightly untidy action leading into the final moments of the play, when the actors connect additional power sources to light up the pallet parquetry floor from beneath, only to reveal its cracks. The cracks in the floor (in the faces, in the hearts and minds and souls of so many men and women), were always there, but until they’re illuminated it’s possible to stubbornly/naively/foolishly/destructively ignore them.
It’s brave, of course it is, to stage something so known so drastically differently, to trust your actors so completely to bring new aspects to each character, giving us new insight into an age-old story. If you’ve never seen A Doll’s House, originally staged in 1879, a month after Ibsen penned it, this one is a fascinating production, well worth making the effort to get to. And interestingly, when much younger members of the audience laugh (well, let’s say they are not that much younger), I feel a rush of sadness for Nora and still, despite our “progress”, a tenderness for women everywhere. I overhear an older couple discussing whether or not the young people are “getting it” and I can only conclude they are “getting” something completely different from the show. Or maybe not so different at all. It’s in that (and in my own response to the work), that we see the real magic of this version of the play.
I didn’t think I could ever sit through another production of A Doll’s House. We just don’t accept anymore that a woman relinquishes the right to answer back to her husband, or to manage her own affairs, but in this entertaining and moving production, it’s entirely believable. Of course this is largely due too, to the superb cast, comprising Helen Christinson (Nora “Hummingbird” Helmer – a delicate and precise little kewpie doll creature, like our Wife in Arthur Schnitzler’s La Ronde, whose silent scream is loud and clear and whose Tarantella is, for one moment in time, just as wild and desperate as it should be. It’s at this point that a new production might find its finish. Christinson makes me ache for her…and wonder what it is the redheads in Brisbane theatre circles have been taking. I want some is all.), Hugh Parker (Torvald Puppet Master Helmer), Chris Beckey (Krogstad), Damien Cassidy (Dr Rank) and Cienda McNamara (Kristine).
If you have yet to be called an incorrigable, defiant woman,
don’t worry, there is still time.
We continue to see Steven Mitchell Wright create the most incredible original work, and with the support of La Boite Theatre Company and Brisbane Festival, this time he’s turned straw into gold, pulled Granny from the belly of a wolf and planted a magic bean at the end of the rainbow. I’d say this production marks Steven Mitchell Wright as being well on the way to joining our country’s directing giants.