Review: A Dollhouse ~ theatre notes

Monday, November 05, 2007

Review: A Dollhouse

A Dollhouse by Henrik Ibsen, directed by Daniel Schlusser. Set design by Jeminah Reidy, costumes by Tiffany Abbott, lighting design by Kimberly Kwa, surround sound by Tessa Eleiff, composer Johnny Milner.With Katherine Harris, Nick Jamieson, Michael Wahr, Edwina Wren, Ben Pfeiffer and Veronica Bryant/Heloise Jackson. Company 2007, Victorian College of the Arts, 28 Dodds St, Southbank, until November 6.

When you read novels and plays from the late 19th century, it is sometimes a little depressing to discover how much intellectual discussion then has in common with what we argue about now. Women still complain about being infantilised or of being valued only for their appearance. Probity is still only a problem for a businessman if he’s caught in wrong-doing and publicly exposed. We still worry about materialistic values and imperalistic injustice and even whether God created the world. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

Henrik Ibsen is a case in point. When he was writing A Dollhouse, he told his friend Hegel that it was “a play of modern life”. And its modernity is still striking: there may be the odd porter and housemaid, but the action begins with no preambles and runs cleanly to the end, and there are surprisingly few opinions expressed by the characters that would sound amiss to a contemporary ear.

In this VCA production, director Daniel Schlusser has taken Ibsen at his word, and delivered a modern play. A Dollhouse is set in contemporary Melbourne, in a converted warehouse apartment, and Torvald (Nick Jamieson) has just landed a top job at the Macquarie Bank. In his spare time, he enjoys yoga and Playstation. Nora (Katherine Harris) is a funky yummy mummy who likes a bit of shopping therapy. Some of their dialogue, peppered with the standard casual obscenities, would have given 19th century theatre critics – who were shocked enough by the idea that a woman might not submit to her husband – severe conniptions.

But I was surprised, reading the play again afterwards, how little of the text was changed. This production’s disrespect is wholly in the service of the play. As he says in the program, Schlusser’s intention is to recapture Ibsen's original radicalism. It’s impossible to wholly regain that moment when the slam of the door as Nora left her loveless marriage was said to echo through all Europe: but this is an intelligent look at a classic play that scours off the cultural verdigris and shows it to be as sharp as ever in cutting through the superficialities and deceits of contemporary mores.

Instead of observing its naturalism– in Ibsen’s time the radical edge of modern playwriting, but now so worn a convention we barely see it – Schlusser opts for an aggressive theatricality that exposes the mechanics of both the play and its staging. When the play opens, all five actors are on the narrow metallic set, which runs the width of the theatre. The sound deck is to the right of the audience, playing loud pop music. The wall at the back of Jemimah Reidy’s set is punctuated with a series of hatches, the wall-louvre of a gas heater, a door made of zipped fabric and a television screen set into the wall. As the play proceeds, the set gets more and more littered with the throw-way kitsch of consumer culture, and, of course, with toys (quite a lot of Lego, which is, after all, impeccably Scandinavian).

A voiceover recites Ibsen’s stage directions, and the actors launch into a brief comic aside that contextualises when A Dollhouse was written (and even perform a little of it for us in the original Norwegian). The actors begin to argue, and as their voices rise, so does the music, until Torvald screams at the sound technician to turn it down. Once the artifice of what we are watching is established, the play can properly begin: but now we’re consciously watching it at several levels. Nora’s performance as Torvald’s little lark is also, for example, a 21st century performance of attitudes that are conditioned by 19th century mores.

It’s classic alienation effect which, crucially, intensifies rather than removes the feeling of the play. When Brecht coined “Verfremdungseffekt” to describe his epic theatre, the idea was to heighten an audience’s critical consciousness of what it was watching; but it is a mistake to deduce from this that critical awareness is the same as refusing feeling. Rather, Brecht wanted the reverse: as he says elsewhere, “grab them by the balls, and their hearts will follow”. And this is in fact a deeply moving rendition of A Dollhouse.

Neither Schlusser nor his fine cast step back from the play’s complex passions, and the crucial dialogues are played straight. This production is notable for excellent performances from each of its five actors, beginning with performances of detail and depth from Harris and Jamieson as Nora and Torvald. When Dr Rank (Ben Pfeiffer) confesses his love for Nora, or informs her of his impending death, the scenes are pregnant with what is not said, and what must not be said. The love scene between Nils Krogstadt (Michael Wahr) and Kristine Linde (Edwina Wren) has the complex sadness of experience and failure. The final quarrel between Nora and Torvald – a sharp portrayal of self-blindness from Jamieson – is searingly painful.

Perhaps the most interesting decision is to adopt Ibsen’s rewriting of the end of the play. It’s had me thinking for days. When the play was first written, Ibsen was told in no uncertain terms that it was impossible to present the play with an unhappy ending. Rather than have his play butchered by other hands, Ibsen opted to perform “this barbaric deed of violence” himself. In this version, Nora is forced to look at her children, and finally cannot bear to leave them and, as translator Peter Watts says, "sinks to the ground as the curtain falls with masculine supremacy restored and Woman relegated to her proper sphere of 'Kirche, Küche and Kinder'."

The effect in this production is entirely different. As Nora storms out, there is a pause, and Torvald calls her name. He is holding in his arms a little girl, their daughter, and slowly Nora turns and comes back; and the play ends with all three embracing. It’s an ambiguous and complex moment, and the effect after the awful scene beforehand is the reverse of sentimental. In a time when it would be standard practice for the wife to leave, Nora’s recognition of the experience and embodied love she shares with Torvald has more power to surprise than the original ending. It is the moral alternative to the empty materialism that has characterised their relationship. And far from being defeat, Nora's return is an act of hope.

Picture: Katherine Harris and Nick Jamieson in A Dollhouse. Photo: Ponch Hawkes

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