It’s difficult to believe today that Henrik Ibsen’s classic play was considered extremely controversial when first performed in Copenhagen in 1879. Yet, the themes radically explored by him remain as potent as ever. In this day and age as feminism reaches unprecedented heights, has a woman’s role really changed at all? Or are we still heavily influenced by dominant ideals of motherhood and marriage? Throughout the play, I had to remind myself that it is actually nearly a 150 years old. Sherman’s version has therefore succeeded in conveying its essence as one that is as relevant as ever in our contemporary world.
Husband and wife Torvald and Nora Helmer believe that all their troubles have disappeared when they achieve a financially stable situation as Torvald is promoted to a bank manager. However, their apparent domestic bliss with their three children is shadowed by a debt that Nora keeps secret. We then witness a gradual unravelling of this bourgeois setup as Nora struggles to keep up appearances when visitors come to the family home and disrupts her usual routine of pleasing Torvald. Her immature mannerism that was first nurtured by the impetus posed on her to keep her father happy eventually evolves into an empowered woman that relinquishes her responsibilities. The central tenet of the play therefore explores prejudices and society’s expectations of women, and most of all how they are allowed to behave in their own right rather than being objectified as wives and mothers.
The actors had no small feat in entertaining the audience for nearly three hours, and despite two intervals they still had to engage us for this long period of time. I’m delighted to say that every performer managed to sustain my attention throughout the play, especially the main character Nora, performed by Leila Crerar. Her vivacious manner and child-like giggling as part of a very vivid characterization was mainly responsible for this. Her wealth of movement and full use of space also contributed to a very convincing performance. Despite the character’s annoying traits at times, she manages to extract sympathy and admiration at the end of the play as she redeems herself as a woman who is true to herself at last.
Alex Blake as Torvald and Paul McEwan as Dr Rank also gave a solid performance, and the supporting actors are to be commended. But for me, Nora was the star of the show and is the crucial thread that weaves between all characters. Of course, Nora’s iconic status is indicative of the fact that many plays and films use males as starring roles. Placing the burden of the play’s message on her shoulders was therefore a bold move, and one that was effectively espoused here long after Ibsen’s audacious stunt. Nevertheless, her all-encompassing and consuming presence on-stage did not diminish the depiction of other characters. The deteriorating relationship between Nora and Torvald is poignant, especially the uncomfortable scene where Torvald attempts to rekindle her affection.
The director is to be praised not only for her ability in directing such a long play, but for capturing Nora’s centrality and relationship with others in an intricate way. Rachel O’Riordan recently directed ‘Iphigenia in Splott’, which was one of the best plays I have ever seen. Apart from the compelling script which is able to stand alone, she must be an effective director in teasing out characters’ inner impulses, as this was the main strength of both these productions in my opinion. The award-winning writer, Simon Stephens, also contributed a slick dialogue that displays the possibility of giving an old play a contemporary feel.
The set was carefully designed. Although it seemed homely and cosy as a typical traditional family home full of personal touches, the neutral colouring struck me partly as detached and resonated that all is not what it seems. The expected chaos of three children was not reflected on set, and the plain cleanliness served to enhance the feeling of apparent emptiness in their lives and relationship. Nora and Torvald dancing around the furniture again served to reinforce this sense of materialist vacuum to which they are bound. The lighting was effective, but I would have preferred more use of light and shade in order to suggest the complexities of the situation and it may have accentuated the colours of the set. Then again, the subtle approach might appeal to others.
This tale of deceit and hypocrisy deserves a healthy audience, and brings to the fore important questions about womanhood, feminism and the pressures in our society that spans three centuries. In the age of social media when we are bombarded daily with photos of happy families, we are reminded that all may not be as it seems behind closed doors.
Rhiannon Heledd Williams
Until Ocrober 24
By Henrik Ibsen
English Language version by Simon Stephens
Directed by Rachel O’Riordan
Designed by Kenny Miller
Composed by Simon Slater
Lighting Designer: Kevin Treacy
Assistant Director: Jac Ifan Moore
Casting Director: Kay Magson CDG