IBSEN’s A Doll’s House is a powerful drama about a woman with an adoring but controlling husband –and a big secret which will change her life in ways that none of the characters can imagine.
Deeply shocking in its day, it is sometimes described as a proto-feminist play – with its famous finale of Nora leaving her husband, her children and her sheltered middle-class life. Ibsen saw the imbalance in the male-female society of his time, and he created memorably powerful roles for women in his plays.
Nearly 20 years ago, the acclaimed playwright Bryony Lavery updated the play from 1879 to the 21st century. Her new version, with some modern language, was generally well received – for Studio Theatre director Tamsin Jacson it was “a revelation” when she read it, while laid up with Covid.
Tamsin, who is drawn to “character-driven work that explores the darker side of the relationships between people,” decided to take the Lavery version and update it again to post-Covid 2022.
Some of her updating ideas work – the use of Instagram images and selfies projected above the stage is clever, and putting Torvald’s office on stage, rather than hidden away, makes his presence even more insidiously dominant. Terry D’Onofrio’s Torvald is a man whose “love” is what we now know as coercive control. His Nora is a “little bird,” a “squirrel,” even a “hummingbird.” Does he even know her name? His terms of adoration make you squirm!
The problems with both Lavery’s and Tamsin Jacson’s contemporary versions are that the anomalies and the anachronisms are impossible to avoid.
Two examples: 2022’s Nora (Sarah Derry) has filled her time (and made a bit of money) by blogging and vlogging and influencing, but she uses the generic word “illness” when she talks about the death of her father and her husband’s potentially fatal condition which forced them to move to Italy for a year. This 21st century media-savvy woman would identify the “illness” – heart disease, dementia, cancer …
And we hear a lot about their financial struggles (about to be radically improved with Torvald’s promotion), but whereas Ibsen’s cash-strapped middle-class family would still have had servants, the 2022 family would certainly not have a nanny (average salary £25,000-plus), although an au pair is a possibility.
But putting the anomalies aside, does this updating work? The answer is yes, because in the claustrophobic atmosphere that the director and her cast create, we recognise the crushing trap that is Nora’s life. And our sympathy only grows as we discover her big secret – that she not only borrowed the money for their Italian sojourn, but forged her father’s signature on the loan contract. Yes, there are anomalies in this storyline, because 21st century women can borrow money without their husband’s permission, but we do understand the powerlessness of a woman without her own income.
Changing the cynical, terminally ill Dr Rank to a woman (the excellent Joanna Daniel) is an interesting and effective change in the play’s dynamic. Lucy Salmon’s Kristine Linde appears a warm and grounded visitor in this suffocating birdcage – only slowly revealing the complexities of her character.
Sarah Derry gives a powerful and convincing performance as Nora, making the transition from bird-doll to an independent grown-up woman who wants to make her own life. Her dancing is brilliant and her body language and movement mirror the development of the character.
Terry D’Onofrio, playing one of the worst husbands in theatre, is an effective balance to Derry’s Nora, becoming a petulant baby as she grows into a woman. Adoring, but completely ignorant of the real woman, his anger is terrifying in its self-righteousness and his moral cowardice is brutally displayed.
Adam Barge is impressive as Krogstad, the man who obtained the loan for Nora. Often played as a weak, manipulative blackmailer, this Krogstad is a man we can recognise – with historic black marks on his character, two young children and no wife, about to lose his job, helpless and frightened.
It is a powerful and inventive approach to a well-known play – Ibsen asks a lot of an amateur company, but Studio, as always, rises to the challenge.