How grand is the opulent family home of a senior bank official? The answer lies partly in the audience’s imagination, only partially because of the limitations of staging in a pub theatre, and mainly because Ibsen’s A Doll’s House is always (save for the most radical of adaptations) entirely set in the front room. The setting, in any event, becomes increasingly inconsequential as the narrative progresses – and there have been some cuts to this particular production. This is A Doll’s House without a Christmas tree, and without children.
There is, without the interruption of the children who wish their mother Nora Helmer (Alexa Matthews) to play with them, no relief from the progressively dark circumstances of Nora’s life. I disagree with the idea of using voiceovers to let the audience know Nora’s thoughts at given points – what’s wrong with soliloquies? It’s left to Matthews to look around maniacally as though this were a silent movie. She inhabits her role so well: the frolicking and bouncing around makes for a sparkling (but deceptively childish) personality, and it takes a visit from longstanding friend Kristine Linde (Julia Florimo), who handles the apparently fragile Nora with as much sensitivity as is humanly possible, for the audience to understand that Nora is somewhat more grown-up than she initially comes across.
Nora’s husband, Torvald (Paul Vates) doesn’t hold back, whether delighted at Nora being in her good books or furious in the showdown scene in Act Three. Ramzi DeHani’s Nils Krogstad, I felt, could have been a little less reserved – a particular threat was delivered in such a way that was so deadpan it was no surprise, despite Nora’s fretting, when it never came to fruition. There are some splendid supporting performances from Brian Merry’s Dr Rank and from Cathryn Sherman’s Helene, the latter an almost constant reassuring presence in her incomings and outgoings as solitary servant to the Helmers.
It’s Matthews that carries the show in a powerful (in more than one sense), precise and confident Nora, with such energetic movement it is almost exhausting to watch. A flowing and passionate performance, there’s a step change in the final act when she finally dumps her little girl persona in favour of a more mature personality. Hurrah. In modern times, the detailed explanations that Nora supplies her husband with come across as rather pedantic at worst and unsubtle at best, but Torvald, a man of a bygone era, needs it all spelled out for him, and even then, he struggles to fully comprehend.
I suppose A Doll’s House isn’t all that shocking anymore given that the definition of ‘family’ has been widened so much since its first outing in 1879. Or, rather, it’s shocking for different reasons than it used to be. There’s still something about broken hearts and shattered dreams that speaks to many, as it would if the play were written last summer.
Suitably claustrophobic in a small theatre space – almost half of the audience must cross the stage in order to get to and from their seats, a good way of limiting unnecessary movements during the performance – this particular adaptation largely works well. The man may rule, but it’s the lady that ultimately governs. Shorter than I had expected it to be (though I did not feel deprived of a full performance), this is a fresh look at an oft-performed play.
Review by Chris Omaweng
A harmless deception to save her husband’s life. Yet, when Nora’s secret threatens to emerge, endangering her blissful home, it forces her to realize how fragile a world built on lies can be.
Henrik Ibsen’s classic psychological thriller, first performed in 1879, is still fresh and relevant, controversial and shocking. New Dreams Theater presents the London premiere of a new version by multi-award-winning Bryony Lavery (Frozen, Stockholm, Treasure Island)
Nora – Alexa Matthews
Helmer – Paul Vates
Linde – Julia Florimo
Helene – Cathryn Sherman
Krigstad – Ramzi Dehani
Dr Rank – Brian Merry
Set Designer – Katie Unsworth Murrey
Lighting Design – Harry Amaytage
Sound Design – Ben Cowen
Director – Kevin Russell
BARONS COURT THEATRE
28A Comeragh Road,
London W14 9HP
3rd to 22 November 2015
(Tuesday to Saturday at 7.30pm)
(Sundays at 6.30pm)
Bookings: 020 8932 4747