It is Christmas and Nora Helmer (Polly Eachus) is content with her lot: a husband who adores her; charming children; and obedient domestic staff. But then an aggravating conversation with an old friend who has arrived out of the blue to ask for help from Nora’s bank manager husband prompts the lady of the house to confess a terrible secret, the only blight on her seemingly perfect life.
A Doll’s House, a play about the journey to self-awareness and independence of a infantilised middle-class woman, has long been considered a feminist text. It would be extremely difficult to present the play without issues of women’s agency and economic emancipation taking centre stage, but Frances Loy, one of Theatre Delicatessen’s trio of artistic directors, has decided to go one step further with this production and cast an all-female ensemble as a way of addressing “questions surrounding the legitimacy of Ibsen’s play as a feminist text”. An intriguing proposition, given the ongoing debate around gender equality in the workplace and the disproportionate effects of this Government’s cuts on women.
Unfortunately, however, there is nothing here that justifies Loy’s casting decision. Even more unfortunately, the way the male roles are presented undermines other aspects of the production. Eachus, for example, gives a rather mannered, but overall fairly pleasing performance as Nora, but Margaret-Ann Bain’s portrayal of Nora’s husband, Torvald, is so distracting that it is impossible to take seriously the scenes where the two interact.
It is as if Loy is so contemptuous of the men in A Doll’s House that she has deliberately sought to ridicule them. This would be an understandable position – Torvald is certainly skin-crawlingly misogynistic – but Ibsen's writing is good enough for this to be clear to all but the most blindly sexist audience without the need to portray him as a shallow, slathering parody. Torvald's employee and Nora's nemesis, Nils Krogstad (Rhoda Ofori-Attah), is the only male character presented with any depth, but it is still hard to see what having him played by a woman adds.
Sophie Reynolds’s adaptation seeks to “set the story free from its original, corseted, claustrophobic nineteenth century setting”, and she achieves this to the extent that the dialogue feels natural for this production’s non-time-specific setting. But peppering the text with informal language and the odd swear word are not enough to bring the play’s relationships – surely the most important aspect for a feminist reading – up-to-date, so that at moments the piece feels sharply anachronistic.
William Reynold’s traverse design neatly evokes the metaphorical catwalk on which these (and by implication, all) women must pass their lives, but its narrowness means that there is only space for one chair, making for some clunky staging choices that further distance the audience from the issues we are being asked to consider.
The idea behind this project is a valid one. Regretfully, however, this production not only fails to deliver on its promises, but ends up diluting the message of one of 19th-century drama’s most forward-thinking plays.