A Doll's House
Henrik Ibsen, in a version by Frank McGuinness
Northern Stage, Newcastle
Review by Peter Lathan
There is always a danger that setting a play - and particularly a classic - in another period will be seen as a bit of directorial arrogance (at worst) or whimsy (at best). With Ibsen the danger is even greater, for so much of his subject matter is of its time (although no less powerful for that). Northern Stage director Erica Whyman has chosen to set A Doll's House in the 1950s and the horrifying thing about that is that it works, for 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.
And the memory is still fresh, as evidenced by the mutters of outrage from many of the women in the audience as Helmer talks of Nora as his "most precious possession" and treats her just like a doll, a plaything.
The effect of the time switch is to give the play a greater resonance, for even now there cannot be said to be absolute equality between the sexes.
But what of the production? Designer Soutra Gilmour, in her fourth collaboration with Whyman at Northern Stage (they have also worked together before at the Gate in Notting Hill), has produced a glass house, through the walls of which we can see, apart from the living room, Helmer's study and a passage way together with the front door of the house, and beyond that into the street. The walls are etched with the same design as the wallpaper on the tormentors which turn the open space of Stage 1 into a proscenium. Based on a Jacobean wallpaper design, it has, appropriately, a very Aubrey Beardsley feel.
The costumes are also very appropriate, not just to the period but also to the characters and the production's concept, most being black, white or grey, or a mixture of them, with the only colour being provided by Nora in the second and third acts (particularly the tarantella costume of Act III, chosen, of course, by Helmer, who also feels the need to teach her the dance so as to restrain the passion which she puts into it), emphasising her role as a doll to be dressed up.
Tilly Gaunt is superb as Nora, changing totally believably from Helmer's seemingly empty-headed creation in the first two acts to her own woman at the end. John Kirk also convinces as Torvald but I confess to having had a little difficulty with his diction at times, something in which (as became apparent in talking to others both in the interval and at the end) I was not alone.
As Doctor Rank James Wolley cut a sympathetic figure, especially as he revealed his true feelings for Nora, and Karen Traynor's Kristine Linde shows the true steel which enabled her to survive in the most difficult of cicrumstances and one felt that the chance of happiness which she has at the end is well deserved.
Chris Myles makes Krogstad an increasingly sympathetic figure as he unveils the sadness of a life which has driven him to blackmail and his innate goodness as he makes his about-turn.
This is an assured, intelligent production, avoiding the melodrama which can - mistakingly! - bedevil productions of Ibsen. Erica Whyman keeps a tight rein on any tendency there may have been towards overplaying so that the almost Chekhovian downbeat ending is as satisfying and moving in its own way as Osvald's "The sun, mother. The sun" at the end of Ghosts.