Ibsen is a playwright with whom I have a conflicted relationship. On the one hand, he is the progenitor of a type of theater that I think has largely run its course: a theater of realistic characters and pressing social “issues” and everything played out under the proscenium arch. On top of that, he’s neither Chekhov nor Strindberg; I rarely sense the fineness of perception of the Russian, or the uninhibited ferocity of the Swede.
On the other hand, he basically invented theater for the modern age. There’s something a little ridiculous about someone as artistically insignificant as myself venturing to wonder whether I like or don’t like Ibsen. The question, ultimately, isn’t his stature; it’s whether he still works now, for audiences today.
Well, seeing the electric Young Vic production of A Doll’s House at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey theater this past week has settled the question for me. Yes, he emphatically does speak to contemporary audience – if you treat him, his characters, his form of theater, and his text, as if he is.
Start with the form of theater. A Doll’s House plays out in the Helmers’ apartment, and the play doesn’t provide an obvious opportunity to step outside the four walls of that space and engage the audience directly (as, say, the recent Broadway production of Enemy Of the People did). So what set designer Ian MacNeil did is put the whole apartment on a turntable, so that we feel not like spectators at a scene being played out on a stage, for us, but people spying on a drama playing out in an actual space. That’s more a cinematic than a theatrical feeling – but, for a contemporary audience, making us feel like we’re behind a camera is, ironically, probably a good way of making us feel like something is real. (The ravishing production of Lady Windermere’s Fan that I saw this past summer in Canada similarly used elements that recalled film conventions to marvelous effect. It’s almost the opposite of actually putting film and video into a stage production, which often makes the film look stagy and fake.)
Next: the translation, by Simon Stephens. It feels alive, present, and does so without being exactly colloquial. And the performances match that feeling: we never forget that we’re looking at people in the 19th century, but we’re also never explicitly reminded of it. They act as if we belong in the same room together. And so we feel like we are.
It’s an extraordinarily subtle thing. It’s in the way that Nora, played by Hattie Morahan – who looks, moves, even breathes like a young Teri Garr – flirts with her dear friend, Dr. Rank, played by a strikingly handsome Steve Toussaint. She shows him a bit of ankle – that’s all – and the moment is alive with possibility. And, see, that’s how flirting still works – it doesn’t have to be very explicit to be very real. But it’s exciting, not mortifyingly forbidden the way it so often seems in period-y nineteenth century drama. It’s in the way that Nora’s husband, played by a convincingly clueless Dominic Rowan, paws his wife when he’s drunk, and the way she resists without wanting to make a “thing” of resisting – and the sitcom humor of the way he reacts when interrupted, over and over, by unwelcome visitors. That’s all real to our life now – but it doesn’t feel false to theirs. It’s true to the relationship we’ve come to see, and know, on stage.
So, too, with Nora’s big finish. In Ibsen’s time, her decision to suddenly walk out of her marriage because she discovered her husband was a stranger to her – because of the horrible way he reacts when he discovers she forged her father’s signature on a document so she could take out a loan, which she needed for – well, that doesn’t really matter; that’s so much plot mechanics – when she walked out, it was scandalous. But here’s the thing: it’s still scandalous. It doesn’t matter that divorce happens all the time – when a happily married mother of three suddenly walks out of her life, we’re shocked. And we are – because Morahan doesn’t sound like she’s making a statement. She sounds like her life has come apart, all of a sudden. Which is just what is happening. Which is something that still happens, now, and is just as wrenching and disorienting when it does.
A Doll’s House was understood at the time as a feminist text, which Ibsen objected to – and Joyce did as well; I believe his line was “if he’s a feminist then I’m an archbishop.” Which is a fabulous line, because, you know, it’s also a compliment: Joyce probably knew as much Catholic doctrine and history as many archbishops. And Ibsen’s objection may, similarly, have been that he wanted to understand why a woman would do such a thing, not to make a point about women or marriage or structural oppression. But that – to try to understand a woman from the inside – is probably the most feminist thing a male artist can do.
It seems the director, Carrie Cracknell, sees things very much the same way – so I saw the play she wanted me to see. Her comment on the translation:
The intention of Simon and I, when we were working on the new version, was to really respect the original and not to try to make a radically departing version, but to release the original play for a contemporary audience. The way Simon approached that was to cut some of the slightly more over-expressed text in the translation, so that it felt more psychologically attuned to the way people speak now. We were also interested in uncovering certain elements of the play — for example, the relationship between Nora and the children, and the sexual dynamics between Nora and Torvald, which in its day was slightly more guarded in the way it was written. Simon made that more expressed and visceral in his version. But we also imagined our version like revealing layers of dirt from an old painting, nothing any more radical than that — trying to find the polish and shine of the original play.
And on the feminism of the ending:
The play has rightly been cast as a feminist play because it’s the first time we really staged a woman breaking out of the destructive confines of marriage. But I also appreciate the fact that Ibsen felt the play was more than that, and that he was trying to express something bigger or deeper about the individual within societal structures. It just so happens that heroine was a woman, and a woman breaking out of those structures. I also feel that it’s important that the final door slam [which occurs at the end of the play] isn’t a moment of triumph, not a moment of catharsis. It has to be the beginning of an unraveling of a life lived — of the lives of the three small children, of the lives of the staff, of the life of Torvald, and the life of Nora. They all have to wake up the next morning and work out who they are in this new perspective, and Nora has to head off into an uninhabitable world and find out who she is. So on one level she’s a feminist heroine, but the play is also darker and murkier and more complicated than a sort of triumphant finale.
The finale isn’t triumphant – but the production is a triumph. Go see it.
A Doll’s House plays at BAM’s Harvey Theater through March 16th.