Thursday, July 31, 2014

A Doll's House

Reginald Season 2014: Seymour Centre and Sport For Jove Theatre Company present A DOLL'S HOUSE by Henrik Ibsen, adapted by Adam Cook. In the Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre. 17th July- 2nd August.

Adam Cook, the Director of this Sport For Jove production of A DOLL'S HOUSE, by Henrik Ibsen, in his program note begins:
Every interview I've done about this production has raised the issue of the play's 'relevance' to our contemporary world. To my mind, a classic only survives as a classic because it has remained relevant. In many ways Nora Helmer is a contemporary figure. We read or watch this play and think, well, here is a recognizable character, a recognizable woman. ... Sometimes there's a richer dialogue to be had with our own times if you set the play in its original period, prompting us to wonder if we really treat each other any differently today? Have we evolved in our thinking at all? And as to the question of the play's continued relevance, has any idea relating to our shared humanity ever ceased to exist? There are antiquated, outmoded ideas, for sure, and Ibsen wrote about the destructive power of dead ideas - a lot - but he world is filled with people who still believe them, and who determine and deform lives of others through strict adherence to those ideas, to those 'mind forg'd manacles', to those original and enduring patriarchal default settings. 
Mr Cook claims authorship of this translation of the play and it only occasionally reveals some awkwardnesses in small substitutions of words/language, such as "guts" for "courage", in a loose arrangement for comfortability, for the speaking of the exchanges of the characters, by the actors, that on the whole is not too disconcerting. I do not know, though, whether Mr Cook had access to literal Norwegian advice, or, then, what English texts he used to arrive at his and his company's solutions. He does say "that when we do that (create a new adaptation), we are re-examining every scene, every word, and every moment." This careful scrutiny, 're-examination', of the text is reflected in the detailed care that the actors reveal in the use of the dialogue to tell story and create character. They have, it seems, an intense dramaturgical ownership of the step by step genius of Ibsen's construction in the organisation of the word, phrase, and sentences of their adaptation.

In this production, Mr Cook, 'radically", at least in recent Sydney terms, presents a 'classic' play, Ibsen's A DOLL'S HOUSE, in a design-look related to the time of the play's writing: 1879 -  as best as it can be, within the reach of Sport For Joves' budgetary constraints. Inside the furnishings of the design, with extremely spare property decoration (Hugh O'Connor), and an odd architectural sensibility (lay out) to the house itself, and aided by costumes that seem to be mostly 'found', rather than designed and tailored for the actors/production, there are enough intimations of imaginative provocation for the audience to fill in the detailings of an actual historic room interior and dress of the period (the comparison-look is to view the Almeida Theatre production of Ibsen's GHOSTS, recently broadcast in Sydney cinemas.)

Inside these bare visual intimations, however, Mr Cook guides his company actors to create a very modern display of physical relationship and manners of the period - all, I felt to advantage the production - indeed, the sensuality, sexuality of the relationship between Nora and Torvald Helmer, in the early acts of the play give a surprisingly new depth of reality to this bourgeois marriage, and highlights the extraordinary journey that the heroine, Nora, makes towards her 'shocking' final decision (memories of the domestic relationship interactions in Ingmar Bergman's FANNY AND ALEXANDER [1982] and the recent sensual cinematic adaptation of Tolstoy's novel, ANNA KARENINA, by Joe Wright [2012] surfaced while watching this production). The choice to include the three children in the action of the play onstage, too (despite the grotesque baby substitute), gives a depth to the scale of the family structures that are both the joy and trap that the heroine lives in.

For, Mr Cook has led Matilda Ridgeway, as Nora, with Douglas Hansel as her husband, Torvald, to construct a very believable relationship of physical attraction and, even, carnality. Nora's spoiled role-playing dimension as Torvald's and convention's 'doll', and her excessive hedonistically sensual pleasure in even the eating of forbidden chocolates is deliciously attractive. Add to this Nora's almost necrophiliac flirtations with the dying Dr Rank (Barry French), and her brutal aspersions of Nils Krogstad (Anthony Gooley) as a kind of 'class' entitlement, her over-'girly' confessions with her childhood friend, Kristine Linde (Francesca Savige), and her intimate co-dependency with her servant, Helen (Annie Byron), her childish self-loss in the giddy games with her children, crowned with a passionate whirling of the Italian dance in sextuple timing: the tarantella, in gypsy costume, and we have the possibility to see glitterings, glimmerings of a kind of unconscious sexual sadomasochistic self destruct construct going on in the life of Mrs Helmer. Very modern, indeed. Ibsen invites us to observe the expediency of Nora's monetary illegalities (forging documentation) and the assuaging of her conscience around such pertinent criminal acts with such flimsy emotional justifications as her husband's and father's health, and, today in 2014, in doing so, it served, for me, to parallel the modern equivalent of those wives of the rich and now defunct corporate criminals so that, women like Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine and her culpabilities, came to mind!

Caught in the webbing of her own disastrous survival gambols, gambles, only a truly confronting extremity of someone else's behaviour can 'save' this Nora. Torvald, provides that for her, with his desperate, but, conventional response to the reality of his wife's behaviours. Nora, facing the requirements necessary to continue to live on, in the hypocritical worldly construct of her bourgeois world, unlike Hedda Gabler, does not choose suicide, but, rather freedom - a freedom that will be as daring in its living, as Hedda's was in choosing annihilation.

Nora has found herself caught in a structure of decaying/decayed truths. She is at once a victim of her compulsion and yet responsible for choice within that compulsion. She has put on the harness of necessity by allowing social values and bourgeois pleasures to condition her personal values. It is her tragic flaw. Like all of Ibsen's heroes, Nora had entered the trap of her surroundings long before he begins to tell her story, and the consequences, which we observe, have been developing unchecked because unsuspected - until the revelation of Krogstad's letter, and the perfidy and weakness of her husband's responses in those circumstances, awakens her to the need to cleanse herself of her 'slavery' to society's conventions and expectations - she will not surrender her life though, and prepares to re-invent herself, to discover her potential as an alert independent. The fact that Ibsen has chosen a woman to be hero, to become transfigured, is a tribute to his fundamental embracement of the equality of all humanity and the fascination, confidence, he has with all our potential for heroism.

This play, then, is not just a woman slamming the door to the forces of stultifying convention, but a challenge for all human kind, to take hold of this 'nettle' and face the consequences. With, this woman's, Nora's example, set by Ibsen 135 years ago, and played for us by Sport For Jove in period costume and setting, in 2014, this production achieves brilliantly both Ibsen's and Mr Cook's challenge to look at how we, all of us, live today - "What social injustices am I ignoring to continue within my comfortable life advantages?" We have portrayed, for us, clearly, in this production the need for heroism in the life of our own times. To contemplate our own succumbings to expediencies over our own conscience and societal responsibilities - the crossings we make over the 'line in the sand' of our own ethical beliefs, to maintain our own comfortable lifestyle and status quo.

The provocation of this play needs no Belvoir or Sydney Theatre Company production conceits to bring it to startling and pertinent confrontations for the contemporary audience. And in its own modest way, re-enforces, complements the 'political' power of the Almeida Theatre's production of GHOSTS, that I saw last month, and demonstrates, clearly, the genius of the poet and 'philosopher' that is Henrik Ibsen, without auteur complications/obfuscations:  N.B. HEDDA GABLER at Belvoir, blog.

The challenge of Nora for an actor is to convincingly play the 'doll' of the first act of the play and move subtly through the Ibsen demarcations of Nora's journey: through the stages of contenment as mother, wife and sexual being, to panicked guilt, fear, entrapment, and gathering hysteria, to burst through to the wisdom of an enlightened being, to, ultimately, embrace the courage of a socially iconoclastic action. Ms Ridgeway is actively nuanced and takes a clear journey (if, sometimes, a trifle studied) in the first two acts of this production, but comes to a powerful and strong revelation of Nora in her final act confrontation with Torvald, and the societal machinery that had hitherto, entrapped her. Ms Ridgeway, there, then, at last, seems to drop away all of the focused strain of the actor's concentrated craftings , and reveals, a new ease, a kind of naked ownership of Nora and her new stance to life - a personal, courageous, flesh and blood revelation of self - a transfigurement, it seemed, of both character and actor.

Mr Hansel, gives fine support and does not let the play be only a transformation for Nora, but indicates a devastated but learning man - Torvald, too, shall be metamorphosed (transfigured? changed?) with the flight of his wife when this new day dawns. Ms Byron and Savige, Mr Gooley and French complete the controlled opportunities of character and plotting that Ibsen stringently designs, well. Mr Cook has guided all to the clear service of Ibsen's great play. His decision to, primarily, reveal the potential of Ibsen's play and on the necessities of the qualities of the acting of it, delivers for us, an absorbing, should-be-seen, night in the theatre. A kind of oasis in the desert of our main-stream principal company offers, I regretfully, opine.

On the night I attended, it was mostly, a school audience. (Not an easy audience to 'fool' - little convention to their behavioural responses ingrained - they let you know if it is working or not!) The focused and hushed attention was remarkable. How fortunate for these young people to have such a lucid and true performance so early in their theatre going lives. They were genuinely captured, enraptured, if the conversation in the foyer in the interval, and after, was to be believed. It will be a performance in the theatre that should linger in their memories, and to be of use to be able to measure other experiences and their quality, in their future theatre going.

Sport For Jove Theatre Company, in respecting the play serves everyone well: the writer, the other artists involved, and the audience. A DOLL'S HOUSE, a play of timeless relevancy. A production of simple, complex honesty. A classic.

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