Henrik Ibsen’s original 1879 play A Doll’s House centres on Nora, and her stifling relationship with her husband Torvald. In Tanika Gupta’s re-write, the story of the frustrated mother and housewife is dropped into the heart of colonial India. We move from Norway to Calcutta, and Nora becomes Niru (Anjana Vasan). But although her name has changed, her predicament hasn’t.
However, the story has now shifted, and Niru’s relationship with husband Tom (Elliot Cowman) is under even more strain; Gupta has added colonial politics to the already utterly depressing patriarchal standards of the time. Tom constantly exoticises and infantilises his wife, which is at best annoying, at worst revolting. Nora is her husband’s “little squirrel” in Ibsen’s original, while Niru is her husband’s “little skylark” in Gupta’s version. While Ibsen’s original play is obviously an interesting look at the awakening of a seemingly comfortable middle-class woman, looking at the story through the lens of the Empire adds a fascinating extra layer.
Vasan as Niru is undoubtedly the star of the show. She begins sweet and confident. She plays along with Tom’s whims and games, lets him chase her around, call her his “little Indian princess” (gross), and even agrees to put on a costume and dance a traditional dance for him and his friends. She has perfect comic timing and runs around trying to conceal secrets in an almost slapstick manner. When it all turns serious though, and Niru realises the true nature of her husband’s feelings for her, she is almost a different person entirely, and there’s no going back. She goes from frivolous and carefree, to steely and strong. To put it simply, she grows up. Colin Tierney is warm and sympathetic as Dr Rank, Cowman is almost unbelievably ignorant as the pretty much constantly randy Tom, and Tripti Tripuraneni acts as Mrs Lahiri, Niru’s self-sacrificial advisor and confidant, with grace and loyalty.
Gupta’s writing is occasionally a bit obvious, leaving little to be interpreted. It at times feels as though she might expect the audience to be children, particularly when anti-colonial Dr Rank gets on his soapbox. But then, given the amount that most of the British public seem to actually know about the British Empire (59% of us think it’s something to be proud of), perhaps it’s necessary.
It’s sad to think of the countless women who live/have lived unfulfilling lives like Nora’s and Niru’s. From India to Norway and everywhere in between, women were and still are on the backfoot, accessories to their husbands. A Doll’s House is ultimately hopeful though, and I’m glad this classic has been reimagined through fresh eyes.
A Doll’s House is playing the Lyric Hammersmith until 5 October. For more information and tickets, visit the Lyric Hammersmith website.