The Theatreguide.London Review
A Doll's House
Donmar Warehouse Theatre Spring-Summer 2009
This new production of Ibsen, in a significantly rewritten version by Zinnie Harris, is marked by interesting alterations to the text, solid if rarely inspired performances at its centre, and really excellent performances in supporting roles.
To take them in order, Harris moves the play to 1909 London and makes Nora's husband a rising politician rather than a banker, with the bad guy not a disgraced clerk but the corruption-tinged politician he displaced.
This has the nice effect of making a press scandal a real possibility and relieving the husband of some of the stuffy priggishness Ibsen's character has.
He remains something of an insensitive sexist, but no more than any man of his time, as we sense when even the amiable and enlightened Dr. Rank has touches of the same ultra-conservatism.
The change also means that Nora's friend Christine can't help being seen as something of a proto-feminist, creating a social context for Nora's adventure.
(Pause for quick reminder - the protected and somewhat childlike wife of a conservative man committed a small financial indiscretion in the past, which she is now blackmailed for. When her husband doesn't respond as she had hoped, she realises she has grown beyond him.)
As Nora, Gillian Anderson gives a solid and fully thought-through performance, but one that lacks much inspiration or life. She's like a very, very good student actress following her director's instructions methodically without bringing much of herself to the table.
She particularly fails to give a sense that Nora begins the play having internalised her husband's view of her as a weak, silly child, which keeps us from seeing her journey to the discovery that she is much stronger than she herself thought.
Toby Stephens' husband benefits from the text's softening of his character, and the actor plays him more as a coward afraid of harm to his career than a prig.
An odd bit of staging puts a spotlight on him rather than Nora during their big final confrontation, but Stephens is unable to make the scene about him, as others actors have in the past.
The finest performances of the evening are those of Tara Fitzgerald as Nora's confidante and Christopher Eccleston as the villain. Both carry a solid reality with them from the moment they step on stage, making the scenes they are in the most involving and resonant.
Eccleston in particular avoids the waiting dangers of moustache-twirling villainy and Uriah Heep crawling to create an ordinarily imperfect man in desperate straits.
The strongest emotional moments in the play are not between Nora and her husband, but the one in which the bad guy threatens Nora and the later reconciliation of the former lovers played by Eccleston and Fitzgerald.
(The other significant role, of the dying Dr. Rank, has been altered too much by the adapter - now loving and understanding, now viciously reactionary - for Anton Lesser to make a whole of him, and the actor must settle for making each scene work, without reference to the others.)
Director Kfir Yefet is to be credited for bringing out such strong performances in roles usually just walked through, while one regrets that he was unable to generate more inspiration in his leads.
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