Zinnie Harris’ new translation of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, now on view at the Donmar Warehouse, transplants the once-controversial play from its Norwegian setting to the political world of Edwardian London. Despite the many strengths of Kfir Yefet’s production, the play’s power is not as consuming as it could be, due to a number of jarring elements in the way the text has been updated. Fortunately, the strong performances of the entire cast, led by Gillian Anderson, eclipse the production’s flaws.
In this rethinking of the play, the Helmers have become Nora and Thomas Vaughan (Gillian Anderson and Toby Stephens), and Krogstad, the lawyer, has become Neil Kelman (Christopher Eccleston), the disgraced politician whom Nora’s career-minded husband Thomas has supplanted. It is Christmas and the couple has just moved in, but their house is not yet their own as Kelman is quick to remind them. This is emphasized by Anthony Ward’s elegant drawing room set with its rows of empty bookcases stretching to the ceiling.
The plot hinges on an ill-advised loan that Nora took from Kelman in order to help her husband recover after he suffered a nervous breakdown. In her desire to do what she thought would save him, she committed an act of fraud. Both Nora and Kelman are aware that if her actions were to be revealed, her husband would face not just social humiliation but political scandal too.
Anderson has played women condemned by social codes before and she gives a powerful performance as a woman who suddenly wakes up to the reality of her position within her marriage. Her Nora is girlish, simpering at times, and happy to the play the role of Thomas’ little Nora-mouse, yet she is also fully aware of her sexual power, instigating a liaison on the drawing room floor and dangling her stockings in front of her dying admirer Dr. Rank (played with dignity by Anton Lesser).
The dynamic between Anderson’s Nora and Stephens’ Thomas is complex and fascinating. He seems utterly unable to grasp the magnitude of what she has done for him and is in denial about the nature of his past illness. When his career is in jeopardy, he is quite able to cast her aside, yet he wails forlornly when he realizes she is serious about leaving him. Both characters have a measure of childlikeness to them, yet it is Nora who ends up saving herself, while her husband, stripped of his superficial bluster, begs her to stay.
As Kelman, Eccleston supplies a measure of menace and an unnerving volatility. Yet, there is also something poignant in his desperation; he is a ‘man drowning’ as Tara Fitzgerald’s Christine puts it. Fitzgerald (a former Nora herself) provides a nice counterpoint to Anderson, playing a sharper-edged, contradictory woman driven by forces that on the surface are very different from Nora, even though they share a common root.