Making the past relevant to the present is always going to be a tricky operation. Making the present relate to the past is even more complicated. Ingmar Bergman’s adaptation of Ibsen’s A Dolls’ House into Nora, trimming minor characters in order to concentrate more sharply on the protagonist herself, throws emphasis on the actors of the five parts left but perhaps doesn’t solve any fundamental dilemmas.
Sue Lefton’s production and Sally Howard’s design present us with a stage bare of anything but a sofa, chairs, a box on a stand and a Christmas tree. Those of the cast not directly involved in any one of the 15 scenes sit on either side of the main acting area. Costumes are realistic and of the period of the play’s original production, the late 1870s. How far the audience’s sympathies and understanding are engaged thus falls squarely on the performers.
In fact it’s very well cast, with Kate Copeland giving a blisteringly exposed portrait of the title role, all girlish curls and pastel flounces in the early scenes as she dances on her way past other people’s problems in a haze of self-satisfaction. The change into a woman slamming her way into a self-knowledge which may prove to be just as dead-ended as her initial cocoon is done with immense subtlety and a well-judged range of facial expressions.
Ignatius Anthony matches her as Torvald Helmer, a bluff man descending into bullying after a drink of two and finally regressing into a naked, sheet-wrapped little boy on the sofa which is mirrored in miniature by the one on which Nora finally places her symbolic doll. It’s an interpretation which denies any sympathy with the man. That’s a feeling left to Roger Delves-Broughton to generate as Dr Rank, tender in his relationship with his friends and ultimately to die – as he has lived – alone.
This version is not particularly kind to either Mrs Linde (Kate Lock) or Nils Krogstad (Ben Livingstone). Lock offers a gentle portrait of a woman who has had to make the most of whatever came her way for the best of selfless reasons. Her mourning dark grey dress and black shawl wrap a born survivor in the correct camouflage. Only Livingstone seems subdued by his part; Krogstad should surely radiate a greater sense of menace in the scenes where he confronts Nora with her own wrong-doing; this is a man who tastes despair every day of his life.
No translator is credited for the text used, though it speaks very well. Shaw was an early advocate for Ibsen’s work, and there’s something about the Shavian “new woman” determined to upset the masculine applecart in this version. Ironically enough, the real new woman comes over as Mrs Linde rather than Mrs Helmer.