A Doll’s House – Lyric Hammersmith – Review
Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House was written and first performed in Denmark in 1879 and is based upon the true account of friend Laura Kieler (who went on to become a published author). It’s become such a perennial favourite that in 2006, the centennial of Ibsen’s death, A Doll’s House was the world’s most performed play that year.
With it’s comment on the lack of opportunities afforded women in a male-dominated world it caused a huge outcry at the time and the ending was considered so controversial that when it opened in Germany, on the advice of his German agent and under the threat of a translator butchering his work, Ibsen had been encouraged to write an alternative ending which he would later term a “barbaric outrage”.
One hundred and forty years on the plays commentary would be considered arguably every bit as pertinent if it were brought bang up to date but in this new adaptation from writer Tanika Gupta, we don’t travel in time but in distance – across the continents to colonial India.
Here, the plot centres around the actions of a young devoted, Indian wife Nuru who, in order to save her ill English husband, Tom Helmer, forges her deceased father’s signature to secure a loan (at the time women weren’t allowed to borrow without male consent). When the money lender turns out be morally corrupt Kaushik Das who is being sacked by Helmer in his newly acquired position of Colonial administrator, Das blackmails Nuru, asking her to use her influence on her husband to spare his job or else he shall reveal her illegal action.
The play touches upon race, gender, religion, love (both requited and unrequited), deceit, devotion, manipulation and fraternal legacies but in Tanika’s version the comparison between appropriation of country and women seems to be the backbone theme. Great Britain’s seemingly benevolent embracing of India and imposing of it’s own methods and attitudes shadows Helmer’s controlling love for his ‘little princess’ – a domineering and exoticising that reduces Nuru to little more than a doll who’s life consists of spending money, playing with the children and being paraded for fellow colonial families. That Indians were viewed as nothing more than subjects is a motif that reappears throughout the play.
Anjana is a wonderful Nuru. Flitting and chirping her way around the confines of the atmospheric static courtyard set like a trapped bird, she brings a wonderful zest and impishness to the part that makes her despair, when things start to unravel, all the more desperate. You want to reach out and open the door to her cage.
Elliot Cowan’s masculine presence adds to the almost uneasy difference in age and physicality between husband and wife and manages to stride effortlessly between the puff-chested stance his lofty position (and reputation) requires and the frequent showing of soft underbelly that has him both chastising and doting on his wife. At one point dramatically so in the same scene.
The difference in their attitudes served up in the lines:
Helmer: ‘No man would sacrifice his honour for the one he loves.’
Niru: ‘It is a thing hundreds of thousands of women have done’
There is fine support from the rest of the cast especially Colin Tierney who brings wonderful depth and charm to the part of melancholy family friend Dr Rank. Suffering from a debilitating spinal disease (the stiffness of his condition in contrast to his more liberal views of Britain’s subjugation of India and it’s people) he observes that ‘we are all paying for past mistakes – I believe you call it karma’.
Director (and newly appointed artistic director) Rachel O’Riordan has set out her inaugural season’s stall aiming to offer ‘re-imagined classics, contemporary plays and bold new work’. In this new version of A Doll’s House it’s a bold and emphatic opening statement. Even for a period piece it does have a fresh feel. It’s a swifter version with only 2 acts instead of the usual 3 and moves at such a pace that’s exciting but perhaps, at times, is to the detriment of the stakes at play and choosing not to use children in the play but instead alluding to them as being elsewhere in the house, I wonder if that lessened the impact on us, the audience when Nuru makes her ultimate decision. But it’s a riveting, dynamic piece that keeps asking those 140 year old questions.
Last night’s audience were for the most part vocal in their disbelief of the views and actions expressed by some of the characters; the play serving to highlight perhaps how far views and actions might be changing. Clearly still relevant.
A Doll’s House plays at The Lyric Hammersmith until 5th of October.
Production Images by Helen Maybanks.