A Doll’s House @ Donmar Warehouse, London

cast list
Gillian Anderson, Toby Stephens, Christopher Ecclestone, Tara Fitzgerald, Anton Lesser, Maggie Wells

directed by
Kfir Yefet
Rewriting classic plays is a risky business: it’s easy to end up with a half-baked work which is neither faithful to the original author nor fully re-imagined by the adaptor.

Recently Ibsen has been getting the treatment with mixed results: an interesting but fatally flawed update of Hedda Gabler at the Gate, Samuel Adamson’s disappointing Mrs Affleck at the National which was inspired by Little Eyolf but transposed to 1950s England and Colin Teevan’s inspired modern version of Peer Gynt for the National Theatre of Scotland and Dundee Rep.

Now A Doll’s House is given a makeover by Zinnie Harris, moving it from 1870s Norway to Edwardian London.

Apart from anglicizing some of the characters’ names, Harris’s main change is to politicize the play by making Nora’s husband Thomas a cabinet minister (instead of a bank manager), who has taken on the job and house of his disgraced fraudulent predecessor Kelman (originally a humble clerk), now trying to resurrect his career by blackmailing Nora.

Although these changes are in danger of turning Ibsen’s domestic tragedy into something more like Harley Granville-Barker’s state of the nation morality dramas, the suffragette background (suggested by Nora’s friend Christine) does resonate with the proto-feminist aspects of the play, while reinforcing Thomas and Kelman’s fear of losing their public reputations. The shift in emphasis distracts a little from the focus on Nora’s personal journey but there are also some unexpectedly topical lines which provoke ironic laughter, such as ‘As politicians, our staple is trust. That is, after all, all we have to give to the public.’

If the adaptation is not entirely satisfactory, Kfir Yefet’s sensitive handling of an excellent cast makes sure that Nora’s evolution from ‘mousewife’ to independent woman still packs an emotional punch. There is a strong feeling that she must re-invent herself in order to mature as an individual and liberate herself from a stifling marriage in which her husband treats her as his property, despite the pain of giving up her two young children. The sense of uncertainty and transition is echoed in Anthony Ward’s set, with its mainly empty bookshelves, half-unpacked boxes and dust-sheet-covered furniture intimating a house is not always a home.

Gillian Anderson is a highly sympathetic Nora, moving from girlish flirtatiousness to almost suicidal despair and finally new-found steely determination as she belatedly comes to understand that her husband is not worth the sacrifices she has made. Toby Stephens expertly conveys the absurdly self-righteous patriarchal pomposity of Thomas, while also showing him to be a not unkind man who is more dependent on his wife than he realizes until too late.

Anton Lesser makes a strong impact as the family friend Dr Rank, a chauvinist who is genuinely in love with Nora but who is as powerless to help her as he is to postpone his own imminent death. Christopher Eccleston gives Kelman an air of desperation as well as menace as someone who seems to have lost all sense of self-worth until offered unexpected redemption by former lost love Christine. She is wonderfully played by Tara Fitzgerald as a woman ground down by poverty but who retains her feisty spirit after surviving the sort of journey that Nora is about to embark on as she slams the door shut on her former life.

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