A Doll's House Revisited

Joe Brady
Savio(u)r Theatre Company
Etcetera Theatre
(2010)

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You might not have considered whether we needed to see Ibsen's classic of domestic repression reimagined as knockabout comedy, but Joe Brady of Savio(u)r Theatre Company has had that thought. The company's purpose is to unite British and American artists to combine each other's sensibilities - so for this piece we have a cast from both sides of the pond, and a script that relies heavily on visual humour and surrealist gags.

It is, more or less, Ibsen's original plot faithfully distilled into a quick 90 minutes, but with absolutely all emotional weight surgically removed. This Nora is a fizzy, effervescent, petulant, air-headed teenager, with some serious attention-deficit issues - highly impressionable to whatever is happening around her, flitting endlessly from one mood to the next, utterly forgetting the fit of anger or flood of tears of a moment ago. It's a great performance from American Clare Latham - with highly confident breathy RP delivery - that the production would be nothing without.

So Nora floats about her house, eating macaroons, casually maintaining an affair with her husband's banker colleague Krogstag, and being utterly horrid to her old friend Christine, who has turned up mysteriously on the doorstep, impoverished and bitter. Nora's husband Helmer is boorish, money-obsessed and has a habit of only seeing what he wants to see, quite literally. And the local doctor likes to give Nora sleeping tablets to knock her out (to "calm her nerves" or some such) so that he can lech over her sleeping form.

As in the original, Nora has secretly borrowed money from her husband's colleague in order to pay for Helmer's treatment when he was fatally ill, and it is this secret (a wife taking out a loan being considered an outrage) that hangs over her. Unlike in the original, in this version she also throws in for good measure an affair with said colleague, and any number of others, and an unabated habit of spending on the finer things in life, despite her secret impoverishment.

It all means that this Nora has no inner life, there's no sympathy to be felt for her; and it's mighty confusing to see her fret and panic about her marriage collapsing if Helmer discovers her, at the same time as she parades her sins and indiscretions all over the stage throughout. To make a broad comedy out of this play, it not only needs to be seriously funny; it also needs to have an internal logic of its own: some degree of reality established, so that the laughs come from the events in which this normality is flouted.

Most of all, there's no sense of distinction between when the characters' speech is obeying social conventions, and when they are talking about what they, flatly, really want. They tend to just come out with the latter, frequently, without warning or precedent. And some of the physical gags are funny for the first second or so and quickly become just ridiculous: people stand at back of stage covered in blankets, supposedly hidden from view; a character faking death near the end moves about the room, playing dead in different spots whenever anyone comes in. If you create a world in which, from the beginning, absolutely anything can and does happen, and a large amount of the action is baffling and contradictory, then it's hard to be engaged by it.

Saying that though, the comic performances are highly accomplished - Alan Thorpe being a standout performance alongside Latham, as they share the knack for suddenly switching tone for comic effect, from effusive to deadpan in the blink of an eye. And the script has a lot of wicked fun. Dr. Rank describes his libertine father, degenerating thanks to "oysters port champagne heroin intercourse " We don't see Nora's children as she interacts with them, but assume we're to just suspend disbelief, until Helmer refers to "your imaginary children". And Nora has some priceless moments of scattiness. "You should just have let him die" says Krogstag of her husband. "Oh, drat!" says Nora as if just realising she's burnt the coffee. There are a lot of nice moments, but it's a shaggy piece, not quite sure of what it wants to do. Irreverence alone won't get you - what would the Americans say - kudos.

Until 6th June

Reviewer: Corinne Salisbury