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Review Round-up: Ibsen's House Gets a Makeover

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Following Samuel Adamson's recent Little Eyolf and Lucy Kirkwood's Hedda, Zinnie Harris became the latest playwright to update Ibsen with her much-anticipated new adaptation of the Norwegian's 1879 masterpiece A Doll's House, which opened last night at the Donmar Warehouse (See Today's 1st Night Photos).

Harris sets the action against the backdrop of British politics at the turn of the last century, in a world where duty, power and hypocrisy rule. Nora thinks she has the perfect life until a ghost from the past returns, and makes her realise she’s stuck in a suffocating marriage.

Kfir Yefet directs a star-studded cast of Gillian Anderson (Nora), Toby Stephens, Christopher Eccleston, Tara Fitzgerald, Maggie Wells and Anton Lesser (See News, 27 Mar 2009). It continues at the Donmar until 18 July 2009.

Overnight critics generally enjoyed the performances of an “outstanding company”, but most were less flattering in their assessment of Harris' adaptation. Whatsonstage.com's Michael Coveney deemed it a “slack, anachronistic text”, while the Daily Telegraph's Charles Spencer accused the writer of taking “some liberties” with the original. But on the whole it was agreed that, largely due to the strength of the performances (Anderson and Stephens making for a “devilishly handsome” pairing), the long wait for this star-filled Doll's House was worth it.

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (four stars) - “Harris over-complicates the story by giving it a national political edge … Despite a slack, anachronistic text - it doesn’t sound much like Ibsen, nor is it all that Edwardian - the acting in Kfir Yefet’s production is outstanding … Anderson and Stephens - a devilishly handsome couple they make, too - are bravely complemented by Christopher Eccleston’s bitterly vengeful Lancastrian Kelman and Anton Lesser’s vulpine, bespectacled Dr Rank … The quality casting extends to Tara Fitzgerald’s Christine Lyle (Mrs Lynde in Ibsen), a resolute best friend to both Nora and Kelman, with distinct echoes of her own vinegary Nora at the Birmingham Rep some years ago.”
  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph (three stars) - “By and large I don't approve of rewriting the classics ... I therefore have some qualms about this production of Ibsen's great feminist drama. Zinnie Harris has certainly taken some liberties ... Blessed with an outstanding company, Kfir Yefet's production delivers where it matters, though he could ratchet up the tension even more forcefully. Gillian Anderson has come a long way from her X-Files days, and she is a superb Nora ... Toby Stephens bitingly captures the insufferable superiority, patronising cruelty and unearned grandeur of her complacent husband ... and there is strong support ... Nevertheless, I'd rather have seen this terrific cast in a faithful translation rather than Harris' hubristic adaptation.”
  • Henry Hitchings in the Evening Standard (three stars) - “Ibsen’s drama is a powerful statement of his radical beliefs about gender, the folly of idealism and the nature of modern love. In essence, it is the story of woman who wakes up to reality … This is hardly the stuff of parched antiquity, but Zinnie Harris’ new version of the play updates it - in a manner at once topical and trite ... The attempt at relevance nevertheless feels gratuitous. If anything, it works against the play. And there are real problems of credibility ... Ultimately the production succeeds on the strength of the performances. But this fine group of actors, crisply marshalled by Kfir Yefet, would have been better served by a different version of the play.”
  • Benedict Nightingale in The Times (three stars) - “Gillian Anderson … is still required to make one of the trickiest transitions in drama. By comparison the switch from skinflint Scrooge to spendthrift Scrooge is a synch and the jump from Jekyll to Hyde a mere matter of twisting the mouth into an evil scowl ... Does Anderson manage it? Just about. She's helped by Harris' script, which means that from the start she talks more assertively than her prototype ... The sexism is still there, though it's less pronounced than in the original ... Harris makes plenty of other changes, some awkward, some not ... And the overall result? Not so much a Doll's House for feminists but maybe one for those of us still boggling at arrogance, selfishness and hypocrisy in high places today.”
  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (three stars) - “Everyone is busy giving Ibsen a makeover … Now Zinnie Harris sets Ibsen's most famous domestic drama in 1909 London. The result is not as dumb as the National's Mrs Affleck and at least gets Gillian Anderson back on the stage. But it still feels like a diluted version of a great play … I presume Harris' intention is raise the dramatic stakes and show the continuing nature of female oppression. The actual result of her tinkering is to make Ibsen's play resemble a dressy melodrama on the lines of Wilde's An Ideal Husband … Within the script's limitations Toby Stephens is excellent as Thomas: overbearing and suitably self-righteous. Tara Fitzgerald, herself a former Nora, is also very good as Christine.”

    - by Theo Bosanquet & Ava Morgan


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