Miracles don’t happen everyday: Sport for Jove’s A Doll’s House

Ibsen’s work is going through a bit of a renaissance in Australia at the moment. To be more accurate, specifically A Doll’s House. Presented here by Sport for Jove at the Seymour Centre’s Reginald theatre, A Doll’s House will also be seen at La Boite in Brisbane in September (in a new version by Lally Katz), as well as in Nora, a ‘sequel’ of sorts, at Belvoir in August, written by Kit Brookman & Anne-Louise Sarks.
In Sport for Jove’s production, director Adam Cook has stressed the period setting and location of Ibsen’s text as being crucial to the play’s success and impact. “We read or watch this play and think, well, here is a recognisable character, a recognisable woman… 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?” It’s an important question, though (unfortunately) I don’t think Cook’s production comes close to answering it.

Set in the period of its composition, Ibsen’s Norway in 1878, Cook’s set – designed by Hugh O’Connor – is a jumble of period-looking furniture, bland modern office-carpet, a series of lightable fabric panels for walls, and three very-modern-looking office doors with chrome-silver handles. Not very 1878. O’Connor’s costumes anchored the period setting, and were functional enough, if a little uninspired. Like many of the performances and direction, this production lacks the body – the heart; the emotional connection – that is so present in Ibsen’s words. Adapted by Cook, the script stuck closely to Ibsen’s original (much closer than other current versions of Ibsen), but it also included Nora’s private moments of revelation and realisation, tiny fragments of monologue, which jarred with the flow of the rest of the play. These thoughts are confirmations of information and/or actions which have been presented in the scene which immediately precedes them; to reconfirm them feels clumsy and redundant.
The cast, while technically strong, did not have the heart which is so present in Ibsen’s words. Each beat, moment and interaction, each snatch of dialogue, did not come out of an emotional truth, but rather existed in a state of technical disconnect; it was almost as if they were actors speaking at each other, rather than to each other. John Donne once said that “no man is an island,” but here, it seemed that each man, woman and child was an island unto themselves, an ocean of technical interaction and structural beats around and between them, preventing any kind of emotional connection between them, let alone between them and the audience.
Matilda Ridgway’s Nora is at first naively skittish and innocent for much of the first half; upon resuming after interval, her Nora becomes more resigned and distant to her husband’s affections until she seemingly matures, declares him a stranger, and takes the only exit she can think of – and walks out the door. While we certainly saw the naivety and innocence in Ridgway’s Nora, we didn’t see the full maturation of Nora into the woman who would be capable of walking out the door. Instead of being a reaction to the hurt done to her by her husband’s lack of actual care towards her, her exit is rendered into a kind of proto-feminist declaration of independence. While this reading is certainly valid, Nora’s final speech (her ‘hear me roar’ moment) was obscured by a lack in tension, dramatic stakes and emotional connection; we don’t care about Nora enough here to show our support of her decision to leave.
As Nora’s husband, Douglas Hansell’s Torvald didn’t treat his wife as a person but as a doll, a plaything, an object of his affection, and in this regard hit the right notes in the character. But for us to support Nora’s decision to leave, we need to have a reason to not want to empathise with Torvald; here, while his words were certainly demonstrative of a level of (perceived) control, his physicality and presence were not, thus the level of his threat was diminished. Similarly with Anthony Gooley’s Krogstad – while a strong performance, one of the stronger ones in the production – the rage and indignation that bubbles under Krogstad’s skin was here manifested in a barely controlled tremor in Gooley’s hands and voice; while we certainly did feel the threat he represented to Nora and Torvald, it all turned to bluster at the end rather than the catalyst for Nora’s realisation. Barry French’s Dr. Rank had a kind of charm to him, but his performance felt too technically perfect to be able to elicit sympathy from an audience; Francesca Savige’s Kristine felt too cold and distant, too detached, to be an old friend of Nora’s, nor to be deserving of the kind of compassion and friendship Nora extends to her. Perhaps it was Annie Byron’s Helen, the household maid, who showed the greatest emotional truth, whose character seemed less a technical exercise than a theatrical representation of a person; the scene where she explains to Nora how she received two letters from the daughter she left behind many years ago is heartbreaking and touching in the space of a  single phrase, in a simple smile, and no amount of technical skill can convey that level of depth in an instant.
Sometimes likened to a thriller, A Doll’s House sees Nora trying each option available to her until the doors are all closed, and she is forced to take the only way out she can. By interrupting the action with an interval, Cook effectively needed to re-tighten the noose Nora finds closing in around her and the ending suffered because of it. By playing in such a technical and sterile way, Cook removes any connection he could have created with an audience. Ridgway’s Nora dominates the action, for better or worse, rather than the noose-like threat to her independence which Krogstad and Torvald (and Dr. Rank too, after a fashion) represent; as a result, she finishes the play on a selfish note rather than a hurt and forthright one. While purporting to be set ‘in period,’ Cook’s production didn’t adequately address the constraints the period placed on women as mothers, daughters and wives (as outlined in his Director’s Notes in the program), and consequently removed another level of empathy for the audience.
In a production with the kind of pedigree which Sport for Jove has come to embody over the past six years, there are many missed opportunities, and it hurts to see a play such as A Doll’s House produced and fawned over thus. More clinical than The Effect, and with less heart, it feels like Cook is playing with his doll’s house. Except the stakes are real people, real emotions, and real audiences.

Theatre playlist: 39. Wandering Jane, Dario Marianelli

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