“ On stage at Donmar Warehouse, 41 Earlham Street, Seven Dials , London WC2H 9LX. „
The Donmar Warehouse in Covent Garden is currently staging a new version of Ibsen's play A Doll's House. It runs until July 18th and is well worth it if you can get tickets.
The Royal Shakespeare Company last year had a huge hit by pairing Doctor Who and Captain Picard in Hamlet. So now the Donmar gives us Scully out of the X-Files and an earlier Doctor Who in one of Ibsen's better known plays. Not, perhaps, the blockbuster combo of the RSC, but a surefire crowd pleaser nonetheless.
The Donmar is one of the best-established - and best - small theatres in the West End. It's within easy walking distance of Covent Garden or Leicester Square tube stations, on Earlham Street, one of the roads that meets at Seven Dials. I don't like Covent Garden - it's full of tourists and everything costs too much - and it's really only the Donmar that can tempt me to venture there these days.
The Donmar has the usual London theatre features - a pricey bar, not enough space, and programmes that are much too expensive. The theatre itself, which only seats 250 people, is intimate, with seats on three sides of the stage. All seats have a very good view of the stage, and the prices range from about £15 to about £30, depending on where you sit and when you go. It can be difficult to get tickets for shows because of the smallness of the venue and the stunning casts the Donmar effortlessly attracts.
A Doll's House was first staged in 1879 in Denmark, and scandalised polite society (as all Ibsen's plays seem to have done. He was controversial. And miserable. By god, Ibsen's plays are miserable! Surely the man must have smiled once or twice in his life?) The problem for modern audiences is that the play was a scathing condemnation of the institution of marriage, which compared being a wife with being a prostitute. Since then, feminism has made considerable inroads - a wife is no longer her husband's property, for instance. So what was once a burning, radical piece of campaigning drama has been reduced to a play about a bit of marital strife.
It's about a married couple, the Vaughns. Tom has just become a member of the Cabinet, but unknown to him, Nora took out a dodgy loan years ago to save him from ruin. Now she finds herself blackmailed by her husband's predecessor, the sleazy Neil Kelman, who arranged the loan. He wants his old job back, but Nora can never let her husband know about the loan...
This new version moves the play from Norway to England and sets it in about 1910. In the original, the husband is a banker - the politician aspect feels like a slightly spurious attempt to make it seem topical, which doesn't quite work (not that banking would have been much less topical). It's a play about domestic politics, not national politics, which makes the Cabinet aspect seem very unnecessary. And bringing the play a bit closer to modern times weakens it slightly, as women's suffrage wasn't too far off in 1910. (This version's set at exactly the same time as Mary Poppins, which is perhaps why the husband is no longer a bank manager.)
Anyway, that doesn't matter too much. I sort of admire Ibsen without necessarily enjoying his plays. I was mainly in it for the cast. I never really liked The X-Files, but Gillian Anderson has successfully moved into grown-up parts since it ended. She's very good as Nora, successfully conveying the sense of someone whose life suddenly spirals out of her control. She does feel a bit too intelligent to honestly believe in the 'miracle' she needs in the final act, though.
Her husband is played by Toby Stephens, once the Next Big Thing in British classical acting, but who's drifted into near-self-parody recently (the Bond film he was in didn't help). I was very distracted by his bouffant hair and moustache, and I have problems taking him seriously anyway - he always seems to be enjoying himself slightly more than anyone in the audience is. But he plays the part well, mostly, doing a good 'respectable, but with an edge of hysteria' thing in the first half, and having one really impressive moment towards the end.
Christopher Eccleston is superb as the blackmailer. He combines physical menace and bitter rage brilliantly, but also lets us feel sympathy for him; he knows how unfair he's being to Nora but can't stop himself. Being the Donmar, even the supporting parts are filled by well-known actors. Tara Fitzgerald plays Nora's less well-off childhood friend, Christine, and is very good, although her attempt to look dowdy doesn't quite work (how could it?). And Anton Lesser is excellent as the cynical and ultimately rather creepy Dr Rank.
The production is well done, although the half-empty boxes scattered around the stage might not have been a great idea - actors bumped into them a couple of times. I suspect Ibsen pretty much directs himself, and the costumes and set (reused from an earlier production in part, I think) look fine.
The play itself is a funny old thing, which feels weird transposed to England. There's a peculiar, near-mystical aspect to relationships in Ibsen's plays, which somehow works better set in Norway. One has the sense that passions never ran quite that high in Edwardian London. There's one bit of dialogue, where Nora contemplates killing herself by swimming off into the frozen ocean, which feels very out of place given that she lives in Westminster. The play builds up to one big confrontation at the end, and although it's impressive it didn't shake me to the foundations of my being as it presumably did for its original audience.
Still, I've never quite 'got' Ibsen. You do tend to get excellent actors in his plays, though, and this one's no exception. I've seen quite a lot of fairly disappointing theatre so far this year, but this more than lives up to expectations. Give it a try, if you can.
This is a stage production adaptation of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, by Zinnie Harris.