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A Doll's House

Henrik Ibsen, in a new adaptation by Bryony Lavery
Birmingham Rep and Touring
(2004)

Playwrights have turned to human conflict for their plots for hundreds of years. What troubled people four centuries ago can cause a similar amount of angst today. That's one of the reasons why Shakespeare can speak as loudly to modern as Elizabethan audiences.

But Ibsen was different. He looked at middle-class society and wrote about the problems that occur behind closed doors, the difficulties in relationships which weren't supposed to be mentioned in public.

Take his masterpiece A Doll's House. Written in 1879, it was the first play to trace the hypocrisy of Victorian middle-class marriage and ends with the heroine walking out on her husband. Explosive stuff then - but hardly likely to cause a public outcry these days.

However, Bryony Lavery's new adaptation substitutes amazement for shock when Nora Helmer decides to leave. She seems so dependent on other people that making her own way in the world without someone to lean on is totally unthinkable.

Unlike Thomas Ostermeier who took his 21st century German production of A Doll's House to the Barbican last week, Rachel Kavanaugh's version is set in Ibsen's time.

Although Lavery has gone for rougher, more conversational language than the customary translations, she's not opted for a complete rewrite, believing that Ibsen really knows how plays work. That means the production is never allowed to drag and the evening doesn't seem too long despite its three-hour duration.

A Doll's House looks at the marriage of Nora, a supposedly loving wife and wonderful mother, and Torvald who has landed a decent job, finally giving the family financial security. But as characters from the past enter their cheerful home, cracks gradually appear in the couple's relationship and an intense struggle develops between love and truth, honour and betrayal, and finally between an old-fashioned husband and a disobedient wife.

Tara Fitzgerald is magnificent as Nora, the frivolous, irresponsible spendthrift. Initially she appears almost shallow but becomes three-dimensional, an agitated, anxious temptress who has a profound effect on everyone who knows her.

Tom Goodman-Hill is almost as impressive in the difficult role as her domineering husband, a hard-nosed businessman whose level-headed exterior evaporates when he encounters what he considers to be Nora's irrational behaviour. There is real tension between them towards the end when their whole relationship changes.

There is a superb supporting cast including Jane Gurnett as the loyal loser-in-love Mrs Linde; Richard Clothier as the manipulative Nils Krogstad who loans Nora money and threatens to reveal her secret to her husband; and Peter Guinness as Dr Rank, the dependable friend who confesses his love for Nora when he discloses that he is dying.

Designer Ruari Murchison's set is typically Scandinavian, a plain, middle-class home in which Nora seems to be a doll - until she realises that she is first and foremost a human being and her duty is to herself before being a wife and a mother.

For those who are studying A Doll's House, this is a new slant on one of Ibsen's most successful works. For those who've never seen any of the Norwegian master's plays, it's an excellent introduction to his repertoire.

Overall it's a fine piece of theatre with no weak link, although the night definitely belongs to Tara Fitzgerald.

"A Doll's House" tours to Edinburgh, Darlington, Brighton, Richmond, Cardiff and Bath until March 27th

Reviewer: Steve Orme