No matter how well one knows the play, the feeling arises during some productions of A Doll's House that it really needs to be seen twice in order fully to chart the lead actress's treatment of Nora Helmer's psychological journey. The flintily aware woman of the third act has undergone such a sea-change even from the caring but disintegrating wife of a little while before that it sometimes feels as if one has missed something in the through line of a stage portrayal.
Geraldine Somerville's is such a performance – or, perhaps, such a pair of performances. As the "doll-wife" of the play's early stages, she has been so thoroughly schooled in the desirability of adopting a girlish manner that it is now second nature to her, even when fretting to herself about the threatened revelation of her past financial misdeed. The awakening Nora of the final act, uncertain what she needs to find but keenly conscious of what she must escape, is played with complete naturalism. What is missing is a discernible progression from the former to the latter; true, the character as written undergoes a sudden and radical transformation, but whilst Somerville captures each individual state, she does not make them seem connected.
Irina Brown's production – although hampered by a set design from Paul Andrews whose scarlet brickwork and green Three Bears-sized chairs take Ibsen's title annoyingly literally – is notable for maximising honesty and sympathy in all quarters. No ambiguous line is pointedly emphasised, no shadow over-exaggerated. Each character is played as decently as possible – even the blackmailing Krogstad (Paul Brennen), although he uses the phraseology of villainy, apparently does so only under compulsion. Sam Cox is determinedly buoyant without pushing Dr Rank's underlying pathos, and above all Hilton McRae's Torvald is neither neglectful of his wife nor desiccated and condescending; his voice takes on a tone of self-mockery on his most sententious lines, and he and Nora are apparently at one as they more or less play at house together. This Torvald means as well as he can and better than most; it simply has not occurred to him to question his social culture.
Such sincerity lays the foundations for a final duologue which is painful in its emotional plainness from both participants; it has illustrated perfectly Nora's explanation that she has spent eight years of marriage being cheerful rather than happy. It renders the play less entirely one-sided than it has usually been seen in the past couple of decades (without swinging back towards the almost universally pro-Torvald opinion when the play was first produced in 1879), but may also contribute to the discontinuity in Somerville's characterisation of Nora.
An episode in which Nora plays with the two Helmer children reinforces the motif of cheerfulness, but goes on too long; this, and an excessively protracted yet strangely anaemic tarantella scene, add an unnecessary quarter-hour to the running time. However, Brown's achievement in restoring not an equality but a contemporary plausibility to the family perspective should not in any way be belittled.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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