Originally by Henrik Ibsen, in a new version by Zinnie Harris
Directed by Kfir Yefet
Venue: Donmar Warehouse
Date: Thursday 25th June 2009
This is a tricky production to evaluate, with so much having been changed from the original. First, there is the change in setting from Victorian Oslo to Edwardian London, and the area of life from banking to politics. Then the language is also seriously changed; not just translated from Norwegian to English, but to relatively modern English as well, making the dialogue seem both anachronistic and much more aggressive. The characters don’t draw us into their lives by their restraint so much as fling words at each other, like guests on some bizarre Edwardian Jerry Springer show. This change of style lessened the impact of the emotional discoveries and changes for me, and left me feeling slightly disappointed. There was a good deal more humour as a result, which is rarely a bad thing, and but for the childish reactions of a number of the youngsters in the audience, the amount of physical sexual activity might have had more of an impact, so my sense of disappointment wasn’t just with the play.
Then there was the style of performance, which was cruder than I would have liked, although powerful in the final scene between Thomas and Nora. The actors all did a fine job with this style of production, despite occasional bouts of shouting for no apparent reason, so I will have to put any lack of subtlety in the performance down entirely to the director. Both Steve and I felt that the part of Doctor Rank was underwritten, though ably played by Anton Lesser, and my overall impression was of a ‘dumbing down’ of the play for a modern audience. It was still good, but not as good as the ‘real’ thing, and it’s hard to avoid the big question in all of this – why bother?
The set was magnificent, with a wide curved back wall completely filled with book shelves, a Christmas tree to our left waiting to be adorned, lots of packing crates and boxes everywhere, and a beautiful parquet floor. Overhead there was a large oval hole with a railing around it, suggesting a pretty impressive house, and a ballroom above the library. The costumes were all perfectly in keeping, which made the strangeness of the dialogue all the more noticeable.
Both children were on stage today, and this version certainly made it clear, through Gillian Anderson’s excellent acting, how totally she believes herself to be an unfit mother after Thomas’s scathing condemnation of Kelman’s influence on his children. The scene between Kelman and Christine Lyle, Nora’s old friend, declaring their long-held love for each other, was good, and funnier than it had any right to be, and it was interesting to see Tara Fitzgerald as the friend after seeing her play Nora a number of years ago.
It was an enjoyable afternoon, and I can’t help feeling that, with a bit of rewriting and more sensitive direction, this could be a reasonably good version of a classic play.
P.S. Having slept on it, I’ve had some more thoughts about this version. I realised that times have moved on, and in some ways the original isn’t as challenging and provocative as it once was, but I couldn’t see the new ideas and challenges which were being presented in this version. I didn’t see any fresh take on the situation, and I did see a number of things that weakened the main thrust of the piece, namely the moral difficulties caused by the inflexibility of the social mores and legal position of women at that time. Firstly, with the more modern style of language, Nora’s choice to leave her husband at the end seems the sensible choice, rather than a huge leap into the unknown with no chance of support from society and every chance of extreme hardship for someone who has been relatively cosseted all her life. Secondly, the portrayal of Kelman (Christopher Eccleston) removed the possibility of him being a good man forced by circumstances to commit some dodgy dealings to make ends meet. He makes it clear that he did the things he’s accused of, and while it can be a good thing that he makes no excuses for that, it does throw Christine into a morally ambiguous light for choosing to be with him regardless. Is she just a woman who’s fallen for a ‘bad’ man, or is she really able to see the goodness in him and possibly bring that back out?
Kelman’s moral choices are also the template for Nora’s. He has the money to lend her because of what he’s done, and it’s Thomas’s absolute condemnation of Kelman’s actions, with Nora knowing that she’s done the same thing, that sets up much of the tension of the final act, much of which was missing in this production. So if Kelman is definitely dishonest, a popular choice in the current climate, where does that leave Nora? Can we excuse her innocence and choices if Kelman’s are to be condemned? Is it one law for the women and another for the men? And then the penny dropped.
It is the moral ambiguity that comes to the fore in this production. How do we evaluate the choices made by Kelman and Nora, and do we deal with the actions solely on the basis of their illegality, or do we make distinctions between them based on the intentions and results? This may not have been the adaptor’s intention, of course, but it’s a view I’m willing to accept as valid for this piece. It certainly supports Ibsen’s view that women are judged by men’s standards, which is still true today.
However, I still feel the ambiguity in setting is a hindrance. The Edwardian aspect makes it easier to get away with such a clear demonstration of the oppression of women (Thomas’s comment about owning his wife got an audible reaction from the audience) while the modern language lessens the impact, although it probably helps the younger audience members understand it better. So perhaps my final comment above still applies, though without the need for rewriting.
© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me