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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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A Doll's House at The Northern Stage

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Has ever a dramatist better exploited the discrepancy between what an audience - seeing everything - knows and what a character does, than Henrik Ibsen? Has ever a director better understood the political effect of this double vision than Erica Whyman, with her setting of A Doll's House on a semi-transparent stage? On the evidence of last night's performance at the Northern Stage, I would be prepared to make a case for both Wyman and Ibsen.

The play's problem of vision, of failing to see through the eyes of another, is given an appropriate architecture in Soutra Gilmour's set, which locates the play in the 1950s. Framed by a proscenium arch decorated in large patterned wall paper which scales the centre stage as if it is a model, the main house is constructed with semi-transparent perspex walls and - crucially - a clear postbox, and is filled with formica tables, flimsy chairs and sofas. As is Nora, every artefact is liable to replacement, and at risk of seeming dated; this family home is decorated with bought objects rather than family heirlooms to be cherished for their uniqueness, however drab their appearance.

The semi-transparent walls work with brilliant effect. We see bustle in corridors; significant people and letters arrive in the background whilst others talk unknowingly on the main stage; Torvald locks himself in his study and chats with Dr. Rank, perhaps discussing their idealised Nora who is playing a radically different character in our direct gaze. Ibsen effectively exploits the ability of the audience to see everything in a family home, whereas each individual can only see the costume presented by the other; the transparent set provides a visual corollary to this experience, the experience of theatre where life is literally an act, the actor literally the doll, the mechanisms all on show.The house takes on its own dimension of consciousness (or unconsciousness) in Whyman's production.

For an audience, especially a modern one, who knows in advance about Nora's subterfuge and her self-will, it is hard to know whether to laugh or weep with infuriation at a Torvald Helmer who is so intellectually and empathetically impoverished that he simply cannot see his world through the eyes of his wife, even as we can see right through his world on this set.

At the interval, one of my friends commented that Torvald's acting seemed a little wooden. But that is precisely the point - he has to be intellectually immobile, talking in clichés ("my most precious possession"; "I want to be the strong man") to contrast with Nora's independence. But as well as just a dramatic foil, Torval's stasismakes perhaps the most potent political point. Any hope we have that he, too, can change is delayed until after Nora slams the door behind her. That he, not Nora, ask the final question laden with potential - "something glorious?" - leaves the ending ultimately ambiguous rather than hopeful: will Torvald have it in him to strive to find realisation, or will he will have to wait, vainly, for something glorious simply to drop through the letterbox? There are no hints in Torvald's earlier performance to answer either way, which is perhaps - on reflection after the drama of Nora's exit - the most damning statement of the play. At least Nora's gender allows her to know her status as being lesser in society, and thereby provokes her to look inward upon herself as an individual; Torvald's masculinity gives him neither a broad vision of the world outside, nor a focus through which to reflect upon himself. John Kirk as Torvald plays the role with precisely the lack of fluency needed for this social puppet, with a tunnel vision engineered by his times. (Though, it should be noted, it seemed as if Kirk missed his cue a couple of times in the final act, which probably was not intended as part of his representation of this lack of fluency.)

Exemplifying this is the central Tarantella dance scene. Here choreographed with energy on the brink of vehemence, Torvald is captivated, aroused and in control as he conducts Nora's movements, but when Nora stops abruptly as Mrs. Linde enters with news of her vital conversation with Krogstad, Torvald is left bewildered by the sudden change and as he is shooed into his study by Nora. The discrepancy between his singular vision of an erotic doll-wife, and our wider vision of the symbolism behind the movements - of Nora's expression of her inner demons through the "rather too realistic" urgency of her dancing; of Mrs. Linde's return - again makes movement through the house a politicised act.

The Tarantella is a visual premonition of the final scene, when what has been subconsciously known by the audience is made overt in polemic. But even now, explicitly stated rather than implicit in motion, Torvald misreads the situation with horrible ignorance. When Nora's illegal contract is returned, rescuing Torvald from his ruin, he believes he can restore the situation in a moment, dressing his doll back in the clothes of which he has just disrobed her: "I wouldn't be a proper man if I didn't find a woman doubly attractive for being so obviously helpless."

But if Torvald is cognitively inert until the very final, preminitory words, Nora starts a Victorian, and ends a modern, even a prototypical feminist. Which is why it makes perfect sense for Wyman to transplant the play to the 1950s; as Peter Lathan observes:
the relationship between Nora and Torvald Helmer could have been patterned on the "happy home-maker" image of women pushed by the media of the '50s. Nora as the "little squirrel" in 1879 is reflected in the "squirrels and bears" of Jimmy Porter and his wife in 1956.
Like the late nineteenth century, the 1950s were a liminal period when the boundaries of politics were becoming stretched, but it was hard to balance its elastic potential against leaving the family home, proscriptive but warm, masculine but safe. When Mrs. Linde comes in from the winter cold to sit beside the fire, she is moving from insecure independence to - temporarily - comfortable conformity. Inversely, Nora leaves this setting to enter a chilly society on the brink of change. Yet because the domestic setting does, in spite of it all, work as a compromised idyll - with happy children, confidente maids, wealth - it is vital that we believe in Nora's individuality, trust that she would still be prepared to relinquish it. In this case, Nora (Tilly Gaunt) is one upon whom realisation dawns in a totally convincing way.

Nora has moments when she herself appears not dissimilar to Torvald. Having discussed Mrs. Linde's loss of her mother and her financial plight, Nora comments that Mrs. Linde is looking unwell: you ought to go to a spa, she suggests, in an naively ugly sort of affection. But if Nora displays the same lack of empathy - the ability to see through others - as Torvald, it is offset by the other dimensions and perspectives she embodies within her own fragile, effeminate frame. Like Walt Whitman revelling in his song of myself, Tilly Gaunt's Nora contains multitudes: she can be of an instant flirtatious, proud, manipulative, helpless, naive, sympathetic, girlish, maternal or gossipy. She is a doll, can wear any clothes, perform any act; her pleading with Torvald when she wants money - elegant arms extended, wrists flicking to his shoulder, skirt flying tantalisingly high as she moves - is hard even for the objective observer to resist, even though we see these actions for what they are, facile manipulations.

The trouble is that with the exception of her business loan, she has not adopted clothes of her choosing, but has had them put upon her by her gender, financial need, and social nicety: "I have been your doll wife, just as at home I was Daddy's doll child." It is this sense that Nora has always had the capacity to play any part, but this time will choose her own, that makes us have faith in that her ultimate decision is natural to her, rather than imposed by the dramatist to score a didactic point.

As she drip-feeds Mrs. Linde (and, vicariously, the audience) with information about her loan, she tells her that she dreams of seducing an elderly gentleman who will provide her with lots of money. Though Gaunt adopts a superficially gossipy tone here - it is a clichéd girlhood dream, after all - there is a darker undercurrent here. We fully believe that she could do this if she so wanted, and so when she tells Mrs. Linde that it is not the decrepit Dr. Rank who is her benefactor there is a sense that the audience themselves are not quite understanding Nora emotionally, not reading her correctly, even though we already knew in plot terms that Rank was not Nora's donor. The inevitability of the plot is in tension with the fluidity with which Nora performs and manoeuvres within and against its expectations.

Gradually, at the start of Act One, Nora peels away the layers of her secret: she took out a loan to pay for Torvald's rest cure, something he must not know about for fear of remission; the loan was from a mystery donor; she is herself paying back the loan by working, showing a financial acumen not normally associated with this Macaroon-munching spendthrift; the loan is from Krogstad. Then, from Krogstad, at the close of Act One come the damning revelations that expose her as having not been in control as she has narrated it: Krogstad will tell Helmer (so what, she impetuously replies, "then my husband will see for himself what a bad man you are"); the contract was invalid, having been signed by her father after his death. Don't you understand, he pleads, cajoles and implores, admirably caring about her as he sees in Nora the mirror of his own social downfall, you have broken the law.

When she then comes out that "then they must be very bad laws," we want to sympathise - Nora is right that the ends justified the means - but find it hard, because her rash lack of honesty does justify the trap in which she now finds herself at this, a literal end. Since Krogstad - diminuitive, harrassed - has suffered under the law having defrauded others for similarly sound motives, Nora for all her beautiful, batted eyelashes must be punished too. Society may be rigid, but it is only in representing that rigidity without any double-standards that the play can promote change. As with Torvald's rigidity, but in a different way, Krogstad's performance as a desperate but sympathetic man pleading for Nora to understand the legal nature of her plight lends some weight to Ibsen's assertion that this play is not about women's rights in particular, but human rights in general.

It is certainly not only a problem of gender, which is anyway just another costume, one Mrs. Linde, plainly dressed and fiercely motivated, has been able to cast off. It is not a problem of the errors one makes or the desires one has. It is a problem of individuality. This makes the play so powerful - just as she could have seduced Rank to attain the money, Nora could easily wheedle her way out of this hole, also. Torvald's reaction to Krogstad's first letter plays to a stereotype of the misled husband, and his joyous response to the returned contract is so self-indulgently celebratory, that we understand that, ruined or saved, Nora could adjust to accommodate herself to a new stereotype Torvald could make for himself: the deceived but forgiving husband.

But it is her refusal to do this even as she is at her most seductively potent, dressed in the bright red Capri costume of the tarentalla, that is the real glory. For all that it would resolve a plot and enact change of sorts, conforming to a type again would be to don a costume already made for her. So with Nora, it is not so much that she changes specifically, as that she accumulates potential to change in ways of her choosing. Torvald wants answers: won't she let religion guide her, what morals will she have, how can she leave her children, her sacred duty as a mother? Nora, confidently, admits that she has no answers or explanations. The difference is that when she does have answers, it will be she who supplies them. She is no longer a daddy's plaything - "I thought what Daddy thought" - she is an individual.

There are innate structural problems with Ibsen's play that the striking performances Whyman draws from her actors cannot counter. The final act is too long, and loses much of its dramatic momentum by the time of the infamous door slam. There are chronological flaws, as when Mrs. Linde leaves shortly after Krogstad to encourage him to return his letter, only to arrive at his house and find he has left for the country. Ibsen cannot quite resist the template of the "well made play" tradition with which he is working, with switches in plot being brought about artificially, through the arrival of letters at (un)fortunate moments. Tied to the demands of a plot of revelation, we are still some way from the modern drama of family crisis that we find in Eugene O'Neill or Arthur Miller, where the mere tremor of Mary's hands and encroaching fog (Long Day's Journey Into Night) or the rise and dimming of lights (Death of a Salesman) bring about revelation through an almost purely symbolic drive.

Whilst updating the play to the 1950s makes sense in historical terms as the decade of emergent second-wave feminism and political ferment - both subtexts to O'Neill's and Miller's work around that period - other historically-specific aspects lose out in the translation. The idea that one is biologically infected with the moral sins of the fathers (or mothers) seems too vehemently adhered too for a decade which would see the discovery of DNA and when the effects of social Darwinism were all too familiar through the Holocaust. Rank is hysterical that his decaying spine is suffering for the Epicureanism of his father; Nora reacts with utter horror when Krogstad tells her she is a criminal and she shoos her bewildered children violently away as if they might catch her syndrome with a mere touch; Torvald is conviced that Nora must never be allowed to see her children. These beliefs make some sense - we still implicitly feel that bad parents make for ASBO offspring - but the vehemence of Dr. Rank's, Nora's, and Torvald's reaction requires the scientific endorsement of social Darwinism and degeneration, backgrounds which had been lost by the 1950s, though absolutely intense in the late nineteenth century.

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Posted by Alistair at 7:48 am

2 Comments:

Blogger Shane said...

Sounds like a fascinating production. It's a couple of years since I've seen the play - the show I saw in Dublin was in a black box theatre. The audience seemed to surround the cast, and it led, I think, to a rather different kind of play to the production you attended.

One thought - the transparent walls sound like a good physical imitation of the look of an actual doll's house - with a front wall that opens and little pieces of furniture in each room. Did it have that sort of look?

10:33 am  
Blogger Ishmael said...

Actually, that was one of the good things about it. The obvious analogy with a doll's house was avoided, only subtly alluded to. The large print wall paper on either side of the arch did give it a sense of being small within, but actually the main body of the stage was naturalistic.

I saw an appalling production a few years back, where they stretched the doll's house analogy too far, and presented the set in miniature. But it doesn't work, and I think Ibsen intended the analogy purely as symbolic, not architectural.

Incidentally, for a really literal interpretation, how about Mabou Mimes' production a few years ago, which used very small men, and a six foot Nora: review here.

11:44 am  

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