IBSEN’S play A Doll’s House, first performed in 1879, has been translated, adapted and produced ever since, providing theatre with one of the great female roles in Nora Helmer. Two recent English language versions have come from Bryony Lavery and from Frank McGuiness. It is the latter that catapulted the glitteringly charismatic Janet McTeer to international stardom, and was also chosen by John Palmer for his Frome Drama production on stage at the Merlin Theatre.
The director has worked hard on establishing strong and rounded characters in this story of what would probably now be called coercive control. Torvald Helmer is a lawyer who has suffered ill health and struggled financially, but has now secured a job as the manager of a bank in a Norwegian city. He treats his adored wife Nora as a child, imprisoning her with extravagant endearments and dispensations of cash as though from a child’s money-box. His control over the family – its ethics, standards, tastes and actions – is total. But this Christmas the times are changing.
When Nora, who has a secret that MUST be kept from her husband, is confronted by Krogstad, a man who is not only an employee of Torvald’s new bank but also dangles a frightening power over her, she has to take adult and immediate action.
Richard Thomas is an attractively compelling Torvald, Stephen Scammell a convincingly tormented Krogstad, Tim Carter a cynically enamoured Dr Rank and Lisa Scammell a well-meaning and recognisable Mrs Linde in this production, which, of course, revolves around the character of Nora. Anita Constantine had this mammoth task, and her quiet voice and fast delivery meant that it was difficult to hear every word, and sometimes hard not to sympathise with some of the domineering Torvald’s criticisms. Ibsen’s plays weren’t written for the tender sensibilities of the 21st century. At that time, the laws of most countries gave men total dominion over their wives, so it matters not that we gasp at the mere idea that a man could prevent his wife from borrowing money – or indeed owning property.
It was also difficult not to be irked that McGuiness hadn’t taken that extra step to inject some detail into the story – what was that unidentified ailment that had apparently almost killed the now hale-and-hearty Torvald, forcing his wife into a financial contract she would come to regret. Again Ibsen has a character (Rank) dying from a venereal disease inherited from his father, just like the central character in his Ghosts.
The ending of A Doll’s House shocked the theatre-going world. Nora leaves her husband and her family. These days an audience should believe that she might get on all right in the big bad outside world. In John Palmer’s reading, it felt as if the only result would be a paragraph in a local paper announcing the discovery of a body by the river.