It’s a brave director these days who takes a play written and set in 1878 and keeps it there but director and adapter Adam Cook is more than brave. He’s also very smart because keeping the original setting of Ibsen’s ‘A Doll’s House’ only adds to the relevance of the disempowered female voice and identity over 130 years later. The changes Cook has made to Ibsen’s play are for the better and with the integrity of the work firmly in tact.
How is it that women shaping themselves, physically and ideologically, to secure themselves a man does not feel at all foreign to us today. For heaven’s sake, a lot of people have made a lot of money writing books telling women that this is how to find a husband in the modern world. Which, of course, is every woman’s goal, isn’t it?
How is it that a woman asserting opinions or ideas still counts for less than a man’s opinion? Or that a single woman of middle-age is tragic and that women are most defined by titles such as mother or wife before we recognise them as people in their own right? And how is it, all these years later, for how far we’ve come, that we are still having this discussion and trying to garner equality across every facet of society and culture?
Enter Sport for Jove’s excellent production of Ibsen’s ‘A Doll’s House’. Cook has found a way to take this domestic and lively opening and transition into its inevitable breakdown with power and precision. Consider Nora’s (Matilda Ridgway) prancing, sneaking pleasure from the banned chocolate she has squirreled away, spending money on her children, her family, keeping the household light in mood, playful, happy, by remaining cheerful and childlike. Why, she’s adorable and adored by all because she is wispy and winsome. No-one expects more from her, including us as audience, because this is a scene played out in front of us in every form of entertainment for too long to count. And Ridgway is outstanding in capturing the contrast and depth of Nora so that the transition is as natural and necessary as it could be. When she performs the tarantella under husband Torvald Helmer’s direction (Douglas Hansell), the terror of her plight is heartbreaking, her life unravelling through the imagery of the wild dance. We feel the grief, long before the play’s conclusion and Nora’s epiphany. Hansell and Ridgway also have great chemistry on stage which makes their relationship believable and heightens our devastation at the unfolding events. As Torvald says, “You mustn’t be so wild and excitable. Be my own little skylark again” and if we’re honest, we kind of want that too. We want it to work out but we completely understand why it can’t. We feel pity for all these characters but are solidly in Nora’s corner as it is her journey that is the driving force of the play.
Anthony Gooley as Nils Krogstad was also terrific in Cook’s production. His nervous tension, energy, fear and sweat permeated every moment he was on stage. We felt the shift in the play’s direction once he entered the space, without it being overdone or forced, Gooley made Krogstad tragic without us ever needing to hear his story and his redemption later drew our compassion and emotions.
This is a great ensemble and I’d expect no less from Sport for Jove or Cook. Hugh O’Connor’s design with Gavan Swift’s lighting captures the superficial normality of the living quarters with the shadows haunting the corridors of this household that eventually emerge on stage. If there was anything to criticise, it would be Hansell didn’t quite capture Helmer’s panic of exposure with control and Barry French took a little while to warm into the role of Dr Rank but both achieved great moments for most of the production and so this is a minor complaint in what is a play I would happily view again.
This is Ibsen as it’s meant to be done and certainly for the teenagers we took to see it, no matter what their background, gender, education or persuasion, they loved it as much as the adults in the crowd and forced us to have a lunch meeting the next day so they could unpack the play’s ideas and debrief about its resonance for them. And if you can get such broad appeal and discussion across generations from a play written two centuries ago, to feel like it means something to us in 2014, you have made very good choices indeed.