“I’ve never felt so clear. I’ve never felt so certain.”
There’s an unavoidable challenge involved in tackling a classic: mere repetition becomes tiresome, but radical reinvention risks ruining a masterpiece and rousing angry rabbles of purists at the stage door, pitchforks in hand.
Poor Player Productions’ new take on one of Ibsen’s most famous and controversial plays, A Doll’s House, will involve just such a balancing act. Thankfully, director James Watt seems to know exactly what he wants and how to make it happen.
By his own admission, they’re playing A Doll’s House pretty straight. Originally set in 19th century Norway, Ibsen explores one woman’s attempts to understand and articulate her needs and desires. Nora Helmer’s life appears the epitome of domestic content: a typical housewife, her marriage seems happy and her husband’s job promises a fruitful future. But when a past secret threatens this charmed existence, harmony is swallowed up by Nora’s disillusionment. Asking more questions than she can answer, Nora challenges her husband and her life, and must decide what is truly real.
James Watt’s answer to the problem of doing something a bit different is, ironically, conventional: he’s changed the setting. But it’s his choice that promises something new and interesting. Watt is relocating A Doll’s House to the world of the 1950s, the decade of the post-war repressed housewife and the early roots of second wave feminism. This production isn’t chasing the contemporary, although the cast are unanimous in their belief that Ibsen’s examination of sexual politics is as relevant as ever to a 21st century audience. Combined with Simon Stephens’ new and more modern translation, this production has an air of immediacy about it. Delving beneath the veil of Victorian properness, this version of A Doll’s House seeks to bring out the resonance of on-going concerns.
The success of this show will, of course, rest upon its cast. In particular getting Nora right is vital: not only is she the protagonist, but the cast explain that Clare Saxby’s near constant presence on stage means that bouncing off her performance is often the only way for them to react. Rehearsals themselves look strong and what’s particularly striking in conversation with the cast is just how thoroughly concerned they all are about their characters’ psyches. I hope this engagement comes across strongly, as James Watt expects the characters to feel “as real to the audience as the person sat next to them”.
Perhaps what I saw wasn’t quite there yet. But this was no fault of the cast, rather a few clumsily placed chairs acting as a rehearsal space did justice neither to the play, nor to their acting. A sense of place, of claustrophobia and the tension of a domestic horror are needed in Ibsen’s play. The set, evoking an archaic world fraying at the edges, will really allow this production and its cast to come to life.
Ibsen’s A Doll’s House is widely regarded as a masterpiece. However this production promises not to rest on its laurels, delivering a tense, powerful and even confronting exploration of entrapment and disillusionment.
A Doll’s House plays at the Keble O’Reilly from Wednesday 13th May to Saturday 16th May, at 7.30pm.