Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House concerns a moment of crisis in the marriage of Nora and Torvald Helmer. Torvald is the Victorian patriarch, affectionate but patronising; Nora plays up to him, manipulative and conventionally ‘feminine’.
In a plot twist familiar from many nineteenth-century novels, Nora has a secret. Some years previously, she fraudulently borrowed money to allow her ill husband the chance to convalesce in Italy. Now the lender attempts to blackmail her; Torvald is his new boss and is about to sack him. Once Torvald finds out about the fraud, he hysterically repudiates Nora, swearing she will never see their children again.
When the blackmailer announces that he has found love and will not carry out his threats to reveal all to the world, Torvald backs down, but his wife has heard enough. In what was in its time a shocking ending – one early actress playing Nora refused to perform it, and Ibsen had to supply an alternative, more conventional, one - Nora walks out on her husband and children.
Ibsen’s play, however melodramatic it seems today, is conventionally seen as a masterpiece of theatrical realism. Director Mary Papadima ensures her cast make the most of the colloquial bite of Bryony Lavery’s translation. But the production boldly attempts to suggest Nora’s inner reality as well; Thomasin Marshall’s design includes doll’s house wallpaper, the patterns utterly out of scale for the humans we are watching, and Matt Hall’s sound design lets us hear Nora’s heartbeat at crucial moments. The play’s final image has Torvald left on stage, the lights shining through the walls of his comfortable family home, now an artificial and hostile space.
Augustina Seymour holds the attention with a poised and sparky Nora, moving from anxious reflection towards the growing energy of her final putting, and leaving, her husband in his place. Nicholas Goode as Torvald remains stuffy and unaware throughout. James Duke’s blackmailer Krogstad is completely believable as the victim of Victorian censoriousness desperate not to be shut out again, and Joannah Tincey’s Anne-Marie brings a thoughtfulness to Nora’s friend and Krogstad’s ultimate salvation. Philip Rham as secretly dying friend of the family Dr Rank is watchful and compelling in his final determination to meet his end with no regrets.
Ibsen can sometimes feel over-earnest, but this fresh and gripping production never flags and he result is an excellent production.