by Joseph Farrell

Bloody Nora! Ibsen’s A Doll’s House

June 28, 2013 | by Joseph Farrell

The most famous door in stage history, the one through which Nora – in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House – will exit to detach herself from her family and good society to claim her life for herself alone, is situated on the right as the audience enters. Attached firmly to it, and well in view, is the letter box which represents destiny as firmly and unshakeably as the prophecy made at the birth of Oedipus. Every other item on the set is dramatically redundant. The room as designed by Robert Innes Hopkins has damp patches on the wall and is rather dowdy for what turns out to be an official government residence. Of course in this production Thomas Vaughan, Torvald in Ibsen’s original work, has been only recently promoted to the Cabinet, so the family has not had time to hang their pictures on the walls, nor to unpack or put away the tea chests on which they squat and which presumably held their belongings. The place has a lower middle class look which appears at odds with the dignity and status Thomas repeatedly insists he has attained. 

The decisive moment which lingers in the mind and which has featured in generations of feminist tracts is the exit through that door made by the actress after declaring that she no longer loves her husband and that she wishes to leave both him and their children. This abandonment of the matrimonial home and wifely duties scandalised Victorian audiences, perhaps more than any other single scene in any nineteenth-century play. It was too strong for German theatre-goers, and Ibsen had, grudgingly, to change the ending for them. In this revised scene, Torvald drags his wife into the bedroom to look at the sleeping infants, and there she breaks down and her resolution falters. She cannot bring herself to leave, but this moving image of maternal devotion was not in Ibsen’s original scheme.

The central question for an actress playing Nora is how to interpret that final moment. As she walks out, she closes the door – on domesticity, on asphyxiating bourgeois life, on stifling convention, on a role as wife and mother, on subservience and dependence. But in his version of A Doll’s House for the Edinburgh Festival,  later seen in 1997 on Broadway, the Irish playwright Frank McGuinness chose to underline the fact that rather than shut the door Nora was opening it – to opportunity, to independence, to self-realisation if also to uncertainty, self-doubt and a life where mistakes are self-chosen and self-inflicted. Some actresses have walked out confidently, slamming the door defiantly and noisily. Others have slipped out more hesitantly, suggesting an uncertainty over their abilities to live up to the beliefs in self-reliance Nora had so proudly declared moments before. For Amy Manson as Nora in the joint production by the Lyceum and the NTS, it is plainly a painful decision, and she hesitates for what seems like an eternity with the door open and the handle in her hand.

The problem in any modern production is how to overcome the fact that this decision cannot have for a modern audience the explosive impact it had in Victorian times. It seems to be an article of faith, at least in British theatre, that plays today  cannot be left in their original time frame and setting. Your spectator in the stalls would miss the point if Antigone were facing her dilemma in ancient Thebes, if Molière’s Misanthrope were behaving badly in seventeenth-century Paris or if Nora and her husband had their being in Norway late last century. There are now three accepted means of bringing foreign language works to British stages – the translation, the adaptation and the version. The translation assumes the audience is capable of coping with the strangeness of the situation and will make their own assessment of what unfolds, establishing for themselves parallels with the lives they lead: the adaptation involves a switch of environment, of period, even of character as determined by adaptor, all designed to make things easier for an audience assumed to be incapable of coping with anything too challenging. The translator is a figure distrusted in British theatres, so normally some established name is brought in to do what is currently described as a ‘version’, not exactly the play as conceived by the writer but rethought and re-packaged to clarify the core dilemma. The central figure in this production is, then, Zinnie Harris who was responsible for this version and who, presumably in an attempt to give some immediacy to the plot, has shifted the action from Norway to London, and from the late nineteenth century to the Edwardian age.

The advantages of this shift are not clear. Is the thinking of the Edwardian era nearer to contemporary attitudes than that of nineteenth-century Norway? In cultural terms, it was an amorphous, ill-defined period described by G K Chesterton as ‘the Victorian compromise’, when the rigid values and standards of nineteenth-century culture were subject to questioning, but not jettisoned. The ‘woman question’ was still unsettled and the shock of the war lay still ahead. However, whatever the intention, the choice of the Edwardian age as depicted here makes the work somehow comfortable, not challenging. If Ibsen aimed at shock and awe, Harris aims for familiarity. How very similar it all is! Where Torvald had just been promoted to manager of the bank in his small community, Thomas Vaughan has joined the government after a scandal had ended the career of the previous occupant of the ministry, Neil Kelman. Vaughan has the unamused, prudish attitudes of a Thatcherite, while Kelman is the type who would have had no scruples over fiddling his expenses. The press is in a decidedly pre-Leveson mood, and although no newshound appears, the fear of the media is all-pervasive.

But in this play it is the women who matter and who move the action. Ibsen’s genius is that, like Shaw, he could adopt and adapt conventional dramatic, even melodramatic, forms to convey radically innovative social and political notions, and the paradox at the heart of the play is that the two main female characters, both motivated by high ideals, go in opposite directions. Nora had borrowed money to allow her to take her ambitious politician husband away to Italy when he was suffering from depression, a mental condition which would have disqualified him in the eyes of the press and public from holding office. When she is blackmailed by the man who had lent her the cash, the same Kelman whose removal from office had left the way open to Thomas, she has to admit that she had forged the name of the guarantor on the promissory note. Kelman threatens to expose to Thomas the fraud perpetrated by his wife. His note revealing the facts is dropped into the letter box with the transparent front, in full view of the household and the audience. Can Thomas be kept from removing the letter from the box, and on Christmas day? What will be the consequences of cutting open the envelope? Victorian melodrama could not have contrived a more gripping situation.

Kelman, as played by Brian McCardie, is a black-hearted villain of the Iago type, the sort who would once have had the stalls at matinees hissing and booing. That is not a criticism, and certainly not a censure on McCardie’s acting. The production was sluggish until he invigorated it with his entrance. The doubts concern the motivations of the character. Ibsen’s Krogstad was undoubtedly clearer in his own mind. For exactly the kind of fraud Nora had been guilty of, he had been sacked from the bank where Torvald had been appointed manager, and was driven by a mixture of revenge, displaced ambition and fear of ruin, poverty and destitution for himself and his family. Kelman faces nothing so catastrophic, but declares that politics is his life, so somewhat implausibly he wishes Nora to nag her husband to write a journalistic piece in his defence. He torments Nora well beyond anything needed for his own rehabilitation. He is callous and sneering, and seems also to be as prone to sexual harassment as a BBC television presenter. Nora certainly seems open to harassment. Dr Rank (Kevin McMonagle) was in the original a good-hearted friend who only reveals his love for Nora when he is diagnosed as suffering from an incurable illness, but in this version he too is a lecher.

Help against Kelman is at hand, in the shape of Christine, Nora’s old school friend who providentially turns up after years of absence. Here too the coincidences in the plotting have elements of what in lesser hands would be viewed as melodrama. Kelman had been in love with her when they were young, but she had abandoned him because she had needed the financial security she could obtain with an alternative but loveless match. When, after the death of her unloved husband, she returns to find Nora, she aids her friend by taking a course which is the direct opposite of Nora’s. Nora opts for independence, but Christine strives to help her by giving up her own independence. She chooses domesticity and marriage to Kelman, who will in his turn be redeemed in the traditional way, by the love of a good woman. Nora slams the door on married life, just as Christine manages to prise open her door to embrace Kelman and domesticity.

Lucianne McEvoy gives a performance of restrained excellence as Christine, who is in many ways the axial figure in the drama. She has the power to resolve the conflict, she has influence over the course of events and she could have restored calm and convention had she not been frustrated by Nora’s change of heart. In Ibsen, this conversion means that the drama turns into a fable, as the tale of one woman becomes a parable for all women. This play ought to be more than the story of one man, who is good and loving according to his lights but oppressive and bullying in another light, getting his desserts, and of one woman representing all women on the path to fulfilment, but it never quite happens here. Hywel Simons gives a well measured performance as a Thomas Vaughan who is limited, somewhat pompous in his insistence on his own honesty, stunted but without guile, and whose façade of command collapses under pressure. There is no doubt that he and Nora are wildly in love with each other, and indeed it is doubtful if there has ever been a sexier production of this work. Amy Manson’s Nora may have been put upon, but she was certainly not repressed. Her rehearsal for the tarantella has the wildness of the dance of Oscar Wilde’s deliberately decadent Salomè, but this loss of control is a symptom of a mind increasingly unhinged.

It all makes for a good night out, but in this version the external events, well choreographed as they be, never quite stand as outward signs of inward developments, and the drama is no more than a slice of life, however compelling. Ibsen drops along the way indications of Nora’s growing dissatisfaction, and maybe in the Harris version this development is taken for granted, but the final crisis is precipitated by the hubris of Thomas when his wife reveals her well meant deception and by his outrageous decision to discipline his wife for her fraud, whatever the intentions behind it were. It is a sudden lurch rather than a dawning of consciousness. The opening and closing of the door in London is never as shocking as it had been in the Norwegian village.


A Doll’s House

(Co-production by the National Theatre of Scotland and the Royal Lyceum.) Run ended.

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