Sunday, February 17, 2019

Compelling night of powerful theatre

Susannah Frith as Nora and Rob de Fries as Torvald. Photo: Helen Drum

Theatre / “The Doll’s House”, by Henrik Ibsen, translated by Simon Stephens, directed by Aarne Neeme. At Theatre 3 until March 2. Reviewed by Joe Woodward.

WHEN all the rhythms, set and performance style are in tune with each other, even the most traditional of plays can feel contemporary. This is the situation with Aarne Neeme’s production of “The Dolls’ House” for Canberra Rep.

The audience applauded the reveal of Andrew Kay’s detailed set when the curtain parted to commence the play. Susannah Frith’s command of the complex yet dexterous text was simply joyful. Each of the actors tapped into the tensions and maintained a compelling rhythm for the duration of the performance. With careful positioning of the actors throughout the performance and textbook-quality vocal delivery of lines, “The Doll’s House” provided the audience with a very clear and compelling classic-style rendition of a most significant play.

With the central character being a woman, debate has raged over the century as to whether it is a feminist play or something quite different.

The program notes point to aspects of this discussion. However, it is the small nuances of gesture and the give-and-take between Robert de Fries (Torvald) and Susannah Frith (Nora) in the final scene that explores the vulnerability of both characters caught in a cultural web of deception. This made for very powerful theatre. Lesser actors might have been tempted to push the agenda of the characters and make the work over-simplistic. The production should be applauded for its acceptance of complexity and its detailed questioning.

The situation is contemporary even though the play was written in 1879. The difference now is that the work is presented within a fragmented social structure rather than the fixed one-dimensional society of nearly two centuries ago. In this sense, the play is like an exhibit in a museum. We can learn from it; provided underlying truths are extracted and reviewed.

The contemporary element of the play is seen in the relationship of the characters to their carefully constructed space. The unreality of concerns and obsessions may well be compared with the social media obsessions and unreality of today’s world. The fabrication of self is not something only of the past. Reflection on what is being presented on stage may well lead one to an equating of our experience with the illusions of Nora’s and Torvald’s own ultimate loneliness.

This review first appeared in Canberra Citynews, on February 16.