Dominic Rowan on ... Why Ibsen’s A Doll’s House is a modern masterpiece, 130 years on
The production returns Rowan to the Young Vic, where he previously appeared in After Dido. His other myriad stage credits include The Village Bike at the Royal Court, The Misanthrope (with Keira Knightley), Voyage Round My Father (with Derek Jacobi) and Under the Blue Sky (with Catherine Tate) in the West End, Happy Now and Mourning Becomes Electra at the National and the title role of Henry VIII at the Globe, while on TV, he’s been seen in Law and Order: UK and the BBC’s current Shakespeare season.
Here, he speaks to Whatsonstage.com’s Terri Paddock about why A Doll's House, written by the Norwegian playwright in 1879, still resonates today – and fully earns its status as a masterpiece in world theatre.
On … the story in nutshell
A Doll's House is a chance to immerse yourself in somebody else’s problems and then to reflect on your own afterwards. It’s about a couple, Nora and Torvald Helmer, who have three children. The action takes place in their flat, on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with the Helmers looking forward to their holiday celebrations, and their new forturne. Torvald, who I play, has been made manager of a bank which means an increase in income and a new, promising start for the family.
But, unbeknownst to Torvald, who has very fixed ideas about moral probity, nine years earlier, Nora borrowed some money from a money lender called Krogstad and faked her father’s signature as a guarantor. If this information got out, it would undermine Torvald and he’d lose his job and everything would collapse. So she’s kept this a secret and has been paying it back. Unfortunately, Krogstad, who is about to lose his own job at the bank, is now blackmailing Nora with this information and we witness the repercussions of that. It ends up with Nora making a difficult decision that takes her life down a rather different course.
On … women’s rights
A Doll's House is sometimes described as “proto-feminist” or an attack on marriage. Ibsen himself, when he was presenting to a women’s rights group, said he was not a political writer but a poet. He was more concerned with the wider range of repercussions rather than gender-based interventions. But it’s true that this play is an important which was written in and takes place during the context of women’s emancipation and changes in the marriage laws so, yes, it had a powerful effect when it was first seen over 130 years ago – and, I think, it still does. One critic described Nora’s final door-slam as ‘resonating throughout world literature’.
It really is quite a fearless play, and unexpected, too, because Ibsen takes elements of more conventional plots about blackmailing, some standard melodramatic ploys, but then turns left so that the play becomes something completely different. It was quite innovative at the time. And it does foretell the problems of modern women’s relationships with men and the changing nature of the institution of marriage.
Nora is very brave at the end of the play, when she’s deciding whether to leave her home and family. She says she has to find out who she is. Torvald says “you’re a wife and mother before everything else”, but she maintains "I’m a human being first, not a woman, but a human being, somebody who has to find how they function in the world, not just in the social world of given roles’. That’s a big, bold and surprising message, especially when you consider that it was first produced in England in 1889. Other playwrights’ responses to the marriage problem at the time tended to follow the line of the woman has to either be disgraced or kill herself. But Nora is very clear that she won’t do that.
Nora talks about a miracle where she’s going to try and kill herself to sacrifice Torvald and very cleverly undermines those conventions and sort of says ‘I’m not going to do that, I don’t want to do that, I want to find out who I am’ and so he does turn expectations on their head I think.
On … the 'masterpiece' label
It’s not an understatement to call A Doll's House a masterpiece. I think it definitely is. Why? Because it still resonates and, theatrically, it’s still incredibly powerful. I remember thinking, when I first read it again for this production: the end is quite shocking, even now. And you can hear the audience reacting to that and the effect it has on them.
The Young Vic is very good at getting in young audiences. The other night, we had a lot of schools in. You could tell that, for them, this feels like something very new and fresh. It’s good for them to see the story played out where it’s not just a piece of literature or a propaganda piece, but it’s actually two people trying to negotiate something, it’s about men and women trying to interact on a level playing field and finding a new way of living together and leading more fulfilling lives. To me, the ending is about opening up a new vista – that was the old way of doing things and it’s gone now, so what can we build from the rubble. Where do we go from here?
- Dominic Rowan was speaking to Terri Paddock
A Doll's House runs at the Young Vic from 9 to 26 July 2012, following previews from 29 June.
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