A Doll’s House, by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, shocked the late nineteenth century world and had to be given an alternative ending for its German audiences. The story of the ‘perfect’ marriage and the objectification of women in the late 1800s has been masterfully re-imagined by Sophie Reynolds (adaptor) and Frances Loy (director) in Theatre Delicatessen’s malleable space at Picton Place.
You are immediately taken into a world of back-handedness, as a man in a Mac hands out moustaches on sticks; a gentleman’s bar allows no admittance for the fairer sex without a fuzzy upper lip. The members of HalfCut who provide such interactive productions are inspirational and a fantastic representation of non-conventional theatre, not to mention extremely friendly front of house. From the bar you are sent to sit by a traverse stage – something I haven’t seen since the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and completely unrecognisable from the fly-on-the-wall experience I had at Mercury Fur at this venue last year. The design is innovative and transformed the setting into a subtle world of sexism; the spray-painted ‘Man Up!’ slogans in the toilets almost go unnoticed till you venture to leave. What I love is the fact that Theatre Delicatessen welcomes people into its space and allows them to explore – more than once I saw audience members wander unknowingly through the open door of one of the dressing rooms (though I’m sure this was intentionally accessible).
The use of space was fascinating – not only with the open dressing room enhancing the way in which Nora was objectified by the men in her life, but the use of mesh walls showing her conflict between the two men, her husband and her money-lender, make the audience feel that they too are trapped in her world and are being observed by those more powerful.
An emotive movement sequence at the beginning set the scene, showing the five actresses in corsets/bandages and silk shorts. It established which sex the actresses were playing whilst explaining through non-verbal means the different ways people are shown in modern day – flirting women and brash men but who are, ultimately, battling to discover who they really are.
The all-female cast shed new light on Ibsen’s text, and all credit goes to them as they tackled some difficult themes with the complexity of cross-gender casting extremely well.
I take my hat off to Margaret-Ann Bain, whose Torvald Helmer was incredibly believable – so much so that at times my theatre-going companion and I had to remind ourselves that she was actually a woman! Bain provided a fantastic portrayal of a man very much in love, but as enamoured with his work as with his wife. The constant reminder that this Torvald was in fact female highlighted the treatment of Nora incredibly well, without pantomime explicitness. Bain switched between an easy-going married man to one desperate to preserve his honour with fluidity, and also managed to hint at real heartache.
Nora (Polly Eachus) was classic and stereotypical, which is just the kind of woman Ibsen conjured up in the script. She flew around the corridor-like stage like a trapped songbird, but balanced her flirtatious manner with enviable determination when faced with Krogstad (Rhoda Ofori-Attah). Eachus visibly grew up throughout the production and the audience followed her from childlike, to an almost teenage episode of self-discovery, ending with an innocent maturity enhanced by the stylistic touch of transforming Nora into a 21st Century woman in jeans and boots who abandons her life, exiting through the side of the traverse and breaking free from the confines of her marriage. The character of Nora is not a superficial wife, but rather subject to the way men perceive her, and Eachus explored the more complex sides of her nature beautifully.
Ofori-Attah’s Krogstad was far more desperate than I had imagined him when I studied A Doll’s House, but this is by no means a criticism. Unlike the harsh, cold-hearted man people often see, this Krogstad was a simple man who faced bad luck that destroyed him and his family. Alongside Zimmy Ryan (Linde), he was a man frustrated and weary, but ultimately good-natured. Ryan’s Linde was also far less bitter than I’d anticipated, but again just looking for a way out. She became rather motherly onstage, to Nora and Krogstad, though her reunion with the latter was just as heart-warming as a romance novel, and their embrace was not encumbered by the politics of same-sex casting.
A character slightly less known but no less important is Dr. Rank. He was portrayed in a sympathetic and tender way by Melissa Woodbridge, who took hold of Rank’s person and delved into the real psyche of a dying man’s emotions. Whether intentional or not, I picked up on something almost sinister about the way both Rank and Torvald appeared to constantly flick their eyes over Nora’s frame, further plugging of her role as their ‘plaything’.
The direction, staging, style and acting brought A Doll’s House to life in a new way that was both true to its original message and had resonance with today’s audience. For those looking for something less than conventional when it comes to the stage, Theatre Delicatessen is a prime example of experimental and successful productions. It is almost impossible to put into words the full impact which A Doll’s House had upon me – it is definitely one to be experienced.
A Doll’s House by Theatre Delicatessen is now sold out. More information on future shows can be found on their website here.