‘A Doll’s House’

‘A Doll’s House’ is a classic by Norwegian, Henrik Ibsen, and was first performed at Christmas 1879 in Copenhagen. This contemporary play is now beautifully presented, with real depth to the richness of the characters by the Hayman Theatre Upstairs, at Curtin University, Kent Street, Bentley. The two and a half hour performances are each night, at the early time of 7.00 pm, until Saturday 8th March.

The excellent set was designed by Phil Miolin and built by the ever-dependable Ian Stewart and Alistair Kennedy . It depicts the Helmer’s sitting room on Christmas Eve, sometime in the mid-1970s. The cream walled room has in its centre a large leather couch, to the right a piano and on the left a massive undecorated Christmas tree. The properties, that included several well-considered kitsch items of the day, a stereogram, the obligatory lava lamp and a Giclee print of Tretchikoff’s ‘Chinese Girl’ (the original was recently bought for $1.7 million) were conceived by the director and collected by Bridgette Weller-Brown and Nicole Sandrini. The walls are covered with large seasonal decorations.

         The young maid, Helene (Rhiannon Peterson) opens the front door and in staggers a porter (Alistair Kennedy) carrying a huge doll’s house. He is followed by the children’s nanny, Anne-Marie (Liberty Hills) carrying wrapping paper and presents. The lady of the house, the manipulative and insincere Nora (Gemma Middleton) in her usual flamboyant way pays the porter the ridiculous sum that he requests and gives him a generous tip on top. This is typical of the lack of respect for money that has had her adoring husband and saviour, Torvald (George Ashforth) worried for years. He thinks she is a ‘silly’ girl, but there is a lot more to Nora than that.

         After years of dedication, Torvald has just been appointed head of the local bank but for Nora this just means a better social standing and more money to fritter away.

        Nora is just about to tackle the Christmas tree decoration when the maid announces that Mrs Kristine Linde (Amelia Tuttleby), an old school friend that Nora has not seen for some twenty years, is at the door. Nora warmly welcomes Kristine but as they dress the tree together, Nora gets the greatest pleasure from telling her friend of her wealth and happiness, before – in false sympathy – pointing out Kristine’s disastrous failure in life.

       The young handsome family doctor, Dr Rank (Nathan Whitebrook) arrives and is immediately shown into Torvald’s study. The next arrival is the de-barred solicitor, now a senior official in Torvald’s bank, Nils Krogstad (Monty Sallur). Nils, the antagonist, seems to have an unexplainable ‘hold’ over everyone he encounters, especially the mendacious Nora.

       Will Torvald see through Nora’s screen and will everyone live happily ever after? 

Ibsen’s skill and popularity is in building an apparently secure, or totally uncertain, situation before removing all the rules of society and turning the whole state of affairs on its head. To do this on the stage, demands a director with a full understanding of the script, subtlety and quality actors who can slowly move their characters from one extreme to another throughout the performance. Gemma Middleton was truly outstanding; she really conquered Nora’s many idiosyncrasies. By having Nora and Kristine decorate the Christmas tree together helped emphasise the nastier side of Nora, who was quite happy to make her ‘acquaintance’ work for her whilst she abused and belittled her. The cast worked brilliantly as a team, showing amazing chemistry, with Torvald, Dr Rank, Kristine and of course Krogstad all having their moments of brilliance.

Magnificently directed by Artist-in-Residence Philip Miolin, assisted by Samantha Barrett, they brought this classic play to life. When the word ‘contemporary’ is mentioned it often means an excuse to jazz a play up, then lose all the feeling and meaning. By employing a season and era with which most younger theatregoers can connect, the whole production was most accessible; and whilst retaining the quality and feel of the original script, the production was not too highbrow.

In this production restraint was the key word, with sensible sound design – great to hear LPs again – at a good level (Ryan Hunt), quality lighting  (Karen Cook) with an unusual ‘wow’ moment and costumes (Alex Vernon) true to the era – the flares brought a smile. SM Becca Jackson and her assistant Jennifer Scullion handled the whole stage production efficiently.

This is a terrific production of an old favourite that I have seen ruined by incompetence so many times in the past. Highly recommended.