Theatre in Wales

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Powerful Ibsen for Sherman’s Second Autumn Classic

At the Sherman

A Doll’s House- Sherman Cymru , Sherman Theatre , October 16, 2015
At the Sherman by A Doll’s House- Sherman Cymru The best writer in Wales on Ibsen is Raymond Williams. The Ibsen oeuvre in its entirety is colossal but in “Modern Tragedy” Williams linked “A Doll’s House” with “Pillars of Society” and “An Enemy of the People.” It is tribute to the density of Ibsen’s drama-making that, across the divides of gender and social role, Dr Stockmann and Nora Helmer may be joined. To Williams- this was a perspective from 1966- both characters are marked by “the refusal of compromise unambiguously carried through, if not to liberation, at least to positive definition.”

“A Doll’s House” shocked in 1879. It shocked to such an extent that Ibsen’s agent in Germany, Wilhelm Lange, pressured him for an alternative ending. He concocted a version in which Nora, rather than making her exit with the slam of the front door, is forced to the door of her children’s room and then collapses. But then, in a letter to a newspaper, the author denounced this change as “a barbaric outrage against the play…completely against my wishes.”

“A Doll’s House” still shocks, even though social mores have shifted utterly. That it plays in the same season as “Brief Encounter”, the ultimate paean to restraint and abnegation of self, makes for a fascinating mirror. It is not the marriage in itself. Alex Blake plays Torwald with a range of subtle tones, which reveals itself only over three long acts, how an apparent amiability may be mask for a particular kind of tyranny. Repeatedly Ibsen dramatised the ruinous consequences of moral absolutism.

Francine Morgan is Anna with her own sad story of loss. Ibsen’s scaffolding of secrets and evasions, the hub of drama, is masterly. The difference between Coward’s Laura and Ibsen’s Nora is to do with children. Nora’s rescinding of most of the weight of parental care looks a world far from our own. But then those boarding schools which flourish in 2015 are filled with infants from parents whose first duty is their own pleasure. All of which emphasises how Ibsen still makes tough material to chew on. Self versus others is still the universal moral difficulty. In Ibsen’s time a lonely survivor of shame and bankruptcy, like Kelly Williams’ Christine, stands out. Dramatically she is ambiguous. The picture of a too often declared friendship between women comes across as a shaky construct.

Rachel O’Riordan’s second classic production for autumn benefits from careful casting by Kay Magson. Paul McEwan’s Dr Rank is not old. But he is of an age at which death is premature and of a demeanour whereby the daily visits cover highly divergent notions of friendship between men and women. Robert Vernon’s Krogstad, a taut figure in formal black dress and beard, makes a figure of alarming threat who finds his own late redemption.

But “A Doll’s House” is Nora’s play; as a character she is hardly away from the stage. Ibsen’s act three opening of a crucial Linde-Krogstad encounter is example of his gift for structure. Leila Crerar has not featured frequently on this site. She was Isabella in Philip Breen’s “Measure for Measure” at Mold. Her casting for Nora is striking for her youthfulness. Torwald calls her a child many a time and indeed, nine years and three children back in time his little hamster and skybird would indeed have been close to being a child. (“Hamster” for “squirrel” is one of the alterations Simon Stephens has made over Michael Meyer’s standard translation and it is a good one.) She giggles, pirouettes and dances the tarantella for her master so that her transition to grandeur and self-determining takes on all the greater power.

This “Doll’s House” comes with high production values. Simon Slater is composer and sound designer, his music used economically, particularly at an act’s closing, to convey unease. Nora’s two-piece shopping outfit (wardrobe Deryn Tudor) is of a colour that matches their spacious flat. Kenny Miller’s design creates a flat of great height. The dresser has ten shelves of plates on display. It is coloured in pale grey so that when evening falls Kevin Treacy’s lighting picks out a blue on the doorframe that harmonises. The curves in the grand piano also pinpoint two lines of light so as to resemble candles. The floorboards are in different shades so that a sense of shadow pervades. The colour motif reads like a nod in the direction of Copenhagen-born Vilhelm Hammershøi.

For this particular performance, not an official opening, the audience has been augmented by the presence in Senghenydd Road of coaches from Ely and elsewhere. Many of the arrivals are only occasional visitors to theatre, if at all. Their presence is part of the Sherman 5 Programme, Cardiff being one of five beneficiaries of the initiative from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation. An audience speaks. Ibsen does not do levity so that when an audience is silent that level of close attention has an eloquence of its own. The Sherman is doing good work.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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