Theatre in Wales

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Ibsen Relocated to Kolkata: Bold and Brilliant

A Doll's House

Lyric Theatre , Hammersmith, London , September 18, 2019
A Doll's House by Lyric Theatre “A Doll's House” played at the Sherman four years ago, in the autumn of 2015. That version had Simon Stephens adapting the translation of Michael Meyer. Design and lighting took inspiration from the paintings of Vilhelm Hammershøi. Rachel O'Riordan returns to Ibsen's excoriating dramatisation of marriage for her directorial debut at the helm of West London's substantial five-hundred seater venue. The transposition of Ibsen from Norway to colonial Bengal succeeds brilliantly.

Dramatist Tanika Gupta has a track record for the task: twenty plus plays, an MBE for Services to Literature, a winner of the James Tait Black Prize for Drama. Her relocation to the Kolkata of 1879 has a deftness to it. A monkey scuttles across the roof. Nora, now Niru, tends a banana tree. The light of Bengal is mediated in Lily Arnold's design of a high veranda-ed courtyard. Musician and composer Arun Ghosh sits high-up throughout.

Kevin Treacy's lighting- he was also at the Sherman production- casts the rough finished surface of the building in a range of shades, as Ibsen's carefully wrought plot follows day into night. Towards the close a wall takes on a tinge of pale ochre.

Tanika Gupta writes a crisp programme note that points to the significance of the time. Disraeli had given his monarch the title of Empress of India just two years before. The two of them appear in one of the innovations, a fiercely dialectical scene between Elliot Cowan's Tom Helmer and Colin Tierney's Doctor Rank on the role of Britain in India. The fracturing has begun. In the first dominion the campaign for Home Rule is swelling. The election seven years on, in 1886, is set to break the Liberal Party. Those final bonds of Empire are under test in 2019. For the first time a majority in the North is recording a preference for Ireland over a little England untethered from Europe.

Racial privilege gives to Tanika Gupta's adaptation a dimension that is not present in Ibsen's small town Norway. Assad Zaman's subtly portrayed Kaushik Das, Ibsen's Krogstadt, is both dramatic aggressor and vulnerable victim. Helmer has used his lawyerly skills to save from justice an Englishman who has kicked an Indian to death. But rigidity of social structure is not the domain of England alone. Niru has her own servant at her beck and call in Arinder Sadhra's Uma. But “the little exotic pet” knows the expected role. “I was not brought up to comment.” Niru offers her friend, Tripti Tripuraneni's Mrs Lahiri, a shawl of brilliant blue to put over the white sari that denotes widowhood with a line “the world is changing.” “Such talk is dangerous” is the reply.

This is not the first time Ibsen has made this move in geography. A great artist of Bengal, Satyajit Ray, filmed his “Charulata” in 1964 and the company has had view of the film. If it were needed Rachel O'Riordan's production is reminder of how fine Ibsen is in terms of pure craftsmanship; scene nestles within act, character cunningly interlocks with theme, the dramatic impulse has both narrative logic and emotional impact to it. For all the crafted interweaving of women and men, masters and servants, friends and antagonists, its weight, as elsewhere in Ibsen, descends on one performer.

Anjana Vasan has appeared on this site before but it has been some years now. She was the mother in Suzan-Lori Parks' “In the Blood” in the Caird Studio and last seen in battle fatigues as one of the remarkable cast of six in Tim Price's “Radicalisation of Bradley Manning”. Earlier in the summer she was on a giant stage of the National for “Rutherford and Son” but “A Doll's House” is of a whole other dimension.

From the start- an exchange involving sweets- she gives to the role energy, complexity, charisma. Under threat of exposure, mixed emotions of alarm and resolve are all conveyed in rapid flashes of eye and expression. Late on she performs a Kathak dance in place of Ibsen's tarantella. At the close the giggles and the mannerisms of the child-to-adult nature of the marital relationship evaporate. It has been replaced with a gravity of self-awareness and irrevocable resolution. Michael Billington at the production a week back signed off with “Anjana Vasan gives a career-defining performance as Niru.” This site often diverges from the Billingtonian perspectives on theatre but this time is not one of those occasions.

The Lyric's Senior Producer, Iain Goosey- once of Wales-based company Waking Exploits- leads a short company-meets-audience session after the production. There is not a trace of ego to be heard; all pay tribute, and refer back repeatedly, to the roles played by author and director, who are not present. It is how it is at all the best Q and A's, homage given to theatre as the art-form of collective engagement.

Picture credit: Tristram Kenton

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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