A Doll's House

Henrik Ibsen in a new translation by Stephen Mulrine
The Peter Hall Company
Theatre Royal Bath
(2008)

For a man reportedly horrified at being hailed as an advocate of 'women's rights', Ibsen is profoundly perceptive of, and sympathetic to, the restrictions heaped on women in 19th century society and the misery they occasioned.

Time and again, the playwright returns to the theme - in Hedda Gabbler, Ghosts, The Lady from the Sea. It may be, as Michael Meyer observes, that his theme is really "the need of every individual to find out the kind of person she really is and to strive to become that person", but it is remarkably singular in an age in which a woman's place was very much subordinate to the man's.

A Doll's House is among the earliest of what are agreed to be Ibsen's ten greatest dramas and the first in which a female protagonist takes centre stage. Nora is to find, as Brick observes in A Cat On a Hot Tin Roof, that, "mendacity is a system that we live in." However, while Brick can only see liquor and death as ways out of it, Nora finds, at the very end, the front door.

Inevitably, of course, the sense of shock and outrage which greeted the play on its inaugural staging has long since passed and we would only question how Nora could bring herself to marry an abuser, as we would now term him.

"Featherbrained", "squander-bug" are among some of the tender epithets used by her husband Torvald, along with the recurrent adjective "little" - hence the title, "A Doll's House". His wife is a possession, the object of which is to reflect his own sense of self-worth and to make his life more agreeable.

Hall and Catherine McCormack, who plays Nora, take the unusual step of presenting her as someone who is pathologically insecure and unhappy from the off, revealed in her constant agitated movement and nervous laughter. It makes for an undeniably arresting performance but strikes me as misjudged.

It both shortens and dramatically undermines the journey that Nora travels in coming to an understanding of the reality of her marriage. It also severely restricts the range of emotions available to McCormack and makes for a more monotonous performance than the playwright surely intended. Torvald's rejection of her is shocking because she believes herself happy and loved.

Finbar Lynch as Torvald delivers a predictably solid enough performance, terse, but his strong performance in the final scene is undermined by the sense of anti-climax which accompanies Nora's announcement that is leaving him. Melodrama is never that far away with Ibsen but there's little of it here.

The best performance in this production belongs to the appropriately titled Dr Rank - he is rotting away from tuberculosis, a euphemism for syphilis, of the spine - a superbly creepy and cadaverous performance from Christopher Ravenscroft. There is strong support from Anthony Howell as Nils Krogstad though I thought Susie Trayling's performance as Mrs Linde to be misjudged.

The new translation by Stephen Mulrine is decent enough, idiomatic without too much jarring. The production is certainly worth seeing but coming as it does after a run of great Ibsen productions - The Pillars of Society at the NT; The Wild Duck at the Donmar; Hedda Gabbler at the Almeida - one can't help noting the lack of fleetness and sense of monotony which hobbles this House.

John Thaxter reviewed this production on tour at the Rose, Kingston

Reviewer: Pete Wood