A modern woman
State Theatre Company South Australia updates Henrik Ibsen’s ‘A Doll’s House’ for contemporary Australia
In a classical theatrical canon largely written by men about men, Henrik Ibsen’s plays – in particular Hedda Gabler and A Doll’s House – are frequently pulled off the shelf for the way they can be used to showcase female actors and talk to contemporary feminism. Hedda and A Doll’s House’s Nora are women trapped in unhappy relationships with the world, women forced to live lives under the control of men. These stories retold can be shockingly, depressingly relevant.
This new production of A Doll’s House, adapted by Elena Carapetis and directed by Geordie Brookman for State Theatre Company South Australia, pulls the story out of 19th-century Norway and places it in 21st-century Australia. Geoff Cobham’s set is sparse: three walls of lights bear down on the playing space of a simple raised platform in a stretch of blue carpet, punctuated by plastic chairs of bright orange. Throughout Act One, this set rotates so slowly that the movement is barely perceptible, until you suddenly notice that things are not as they were. Andrew Howard’s sound design, too, often works through these drawn-out transitions, so you hardly notice the shift from silence to a low rumble until you feel the new unsteadiness in the room. At other times, there are radical shifts, a sudden burst of sound and a sudden blinding of lights unsteadying the audience.
Through this stripped-back staging, Brookman constantly places the emphasis of this production on the text. What a pity, then, that this exposure so acutely revels its weaknesses. For while gender inequality still permeates our society, this A Doll’s House doesn’t seem to consider the ways things have changed.
As a stiflingly hot Christmas takes over the Helmer house, Nora (Miranda Daughtry) is relieved: her husband, Torvald (Dale March), has been appointed to a new position at the bank. As Anna (Anna Steen) takes care of Nora’s young daughter, Emmy (Clio Tinsley), Nora entertains guests – the family friend Dr Rank (Nathan O’Keefe) and the childhood companion Kristine (Rachel Burke) – and tries to stop Krogstad (Rashidi Edward) from revealing the secrets that will destroy the life she has built for herself.
Carapetis makes sure to show that this A Doll’s House is a contemporary story: the characters cool down under air conditioners, they work on their mobile phones, Nora begs her husband for a credit card. But in this adaptation of the action from 1879 to 2017, cracks begin to appear.
While Australian property is increasingly unaffordable and child-care costs skyrocket, here we are given a stay-at-home mother, maintaining a live-in nanny, freely talking about her future home ownership. In an Australia where the average age of marriage is 30, Carapetis unblinkingly gives us two widows in their 20s. When Kristine tells Nora she was left without a house to inherit from her husband, Nora is shocked. When Kristine describes having a job, she earnestly exclaims, “I thought: this is how it must feel to be man!”
Throughout A Doll’s House, something feels amiss, something quite simple at its core: these aren’t the young women I know.
Ibsen wrote about a society of women who were controlled by their husbands, but here a direct transliteration of issues across centuries results in a narrowing of the lens. Torvald’s control of Nora’s finances in 1879 is a story of society; Torvald’s control of Nora’s finances in 2017 is spousal abuse – but it’s not clear if this production ever quite understands the weight of Torvald’s actions as they sit in our world. This Nora is less constrained by society, and more constrained by an abusive man: a man who is a product of society, for sure, but one on to whom the audience can shift the blame.
A Doll’s House is about more than a woman who got herself into an illegal debt. It is about women in a society that disallowed them their own voices. Without this societal framework, A Doll’s House becomes a domestic drama and not a state-of-the-nation play. It lets us off the hook.
The performances are largely strong in this young cast, the first outing for the company’s new part-time ensemble performing two productions back to back. In particular, Daughtry echoes Aubrey Plaza, all sullen looks and crossed arms, but with something imperceptible running underneath, and if the rewriting of Krogstad – the man who arranged Nora’s loan, who is fired by Torvald, who engages in blackmail – into a refugee story feels somewhat untethered to the wider production, Edward gives a complex and compelling performance. And still something never quite feels right.
There is always the sense that this cast is battling against a construct they cannot overcome. These characters hover in a story that’s not quite in Ibsen’s world yet not quite in ours, and in a script whose references to today only expose the strange resolutions in Ibsen’s script – as in the last scene, where characters change perspectives in an instant to resolve the story.
Remove references to mobiles and emails, strip back the entanglement with a modern world, and perhaps the resulting play could unsettlingly sit between Ibsen’s Norway and our Australia – his words coming out of faces that look like us. Here, though, the attempt at a total transformation into 2017 is unsatisfying and too easily dismissed, characters in costumes too easily discarded. It is only in the moments of dancing, all too brief, when these characters feel true: young people, trying to make their way in a world that isn’t quite designed for them.
As we reach the play’s conclusion, Carapetis is finally successful in hurling this A Doll’s House into the 21st century and our Nora finally finds her feet. Cobham’s set sits unmoving throughout Act Two: the stillness is eerie and deeply discomforting, as if the rules of this world have suddenly changed and we need to become accustomed to this space all over again.
In this space, Nora’s monologue as she prepares to leave Torvald is the freeing rant young women might want to have against the world: where men still hold power in parliament, where household chores and childrearing still fall on women, where women sacrifice themselves over and over again for the honour of men. Daughtry’s rage is steady and sad as she grasps her youth and her personhood, as she rejects the constraining definitions of wife and mother, and considers a world that has never let her live the life she needs to live.
It’s a monologue that comes from a different woman than the one we have spent nearly three hours with. And still, even here, she rails against the world but never quite against Torvald – against his choices or his actions – and we again have to ask if the play really understands the nature of his abuse.
Ibsen, famously, ended his A Doll’s House with the slam of a door. Here, that slam is followed by the voice of Torvald. We do not leave the theatre with Nora, imagining what lies beyond her door. Instead we are asked to imagine what lies inside this house for Torvald.
It is perhaps this that speaks louder than anything in the work itself: in a play that tries to be about a woman who was denied a voice, Brookman and Carapetis give men the final word. It is here, finally, that we truly see how little things have changed.
Jane Howard is a freelance arts journalist and critic with a focus on performance.