Saturday, February 16, 2019

A Doll's House - Canberra Rep

Canberra Repertory
14 February to 2 March

Review by John Lombard 

This dull and superficial production by director Aarne Neeme does not live up to the potential of Ibsen’s classic play, with weak characterisation and some bad design choices blunting the play’s impact.

A Doll’s House is about the apparently happy but shallow marriage between flighty Nora (Susannah Frith) and authoritarian Torvald (Robert De Fries), brought to crisis by desperate blackmailer Krogstad (Sam Hannan-Morrow).

Nora and Torvald have been married for eight years, have three children together, and fervently insist that they love each other.

Torvald however acts as though his wife is a nuisance, with the games he plays with her either chores he endures to maintain his sex life or displays of authority. Nora meanwhile acts as though her husband is financier of life’s pleasures, an obstacle to chocolates and fun rather than the focus of her life.

An early moment where Torvald abruptly plants an unwelcome kiss on Nora’s lips to find evidence of furtive snacking, along with Nora’s dazed reaction, demonstrates that there is no love or tenderness in this marriage.

When near the end Torvald suggests the pair live together as brother and sister, the audience laughed: rather than a tender attempt to hold on to the one he loves, this felt like the hopeful last grasp of a lech.

If Nora is a songbird, this is not a gilded cage.

Susannah Frith plays the changed Nora of the climax well and dances the tarantella with gusto, but her overall performance highlights Nora’s childishness, rather than the character’s resourcefulness, grit and intensity. Rather than taking a risk to save her husband’s life, other characters strongly hint that she really just wanted the money for a nice holiday.

Robert DeFries plays Torvald as preoccupied and domineering, but his outburst at the end of the play is too soft to shock: he is more pathetic than angry. In one moment when Torvald is tipsy with champagne DeFries gets to display his considerable comic skill, even if it means that for a moment Torvald is more hyperactive than we ever see Nora be.

Sam Hannan-Morrow gives a booming, confident performance as blackmailer Krogstad, at odds with the many descriptions we hear of Krogstad as a shunned and degenerate character. Hannan-Morrow plays Krogstad as through he is already the manager of a prosperous bank, rather than struggling to survive. In one grotesque moment, he shows genuine concern that Nora might kill herself, ignoring that if she does he will be the one responsible. Hannan-Morrow takes pains to remind us constantly that Krogstad is really not all that bad, as though shifting blame for Krogstad’s actions onto Nora.

The play boasts an effective supporting cast. Saban Lloyd Berrell is funny, moving, likeable and charming as Doctor Rank, while Alexandra Pelvin is compelling as Nora’s school friend Kristine. Brief cameos by Elaine Noon as the maid provide welcome moments of comedy.

Set design is Andrew Kay is straightforward and effective, with the abstract birdcage shape of the set adding to the play’s claustrophobia. Music was however frustratingly sparse, especially since a key moment of the play is a dance. With no apparent cuts to the dense and wordy script, the silence was noticeable, and made the house feel desolate when it should be frantic with energy.

Costumes by Helen Drum misfired. Nora’s standard attire is the outfit of a prim governess, rather than centre of attention. Ironically, the two characters that complain most of their poverty, Kristine and Krogstad, are also the best dressed. Krogstad in particular is smartly dressed in lush furs, further adding to our impression that he really has no need for money.

But for all that, the play has moments of real power. Nora’s conflation of father and husband in Torvald is shocking, and it is much worse when Torvald fully embraces this role, cooing tenderly about how he will chain Nora in the future. The final scene in particular works well, with DeFries and Frith finding a good dynamic somewhere between parties at the negotiation table and snipers taking potshots.

This production shows us the dollhouse, but does not take us inside.