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A Doll’s House, Manchester Library Theatre Company, at The Lowry

Published by: Caroline May on 26th Feb 2011 | View all blogs by Caroline May
reviewed by Richard Howell-Jones

Sisters are doin’ it for themselves!

 

We, of course, already know this, but to Ibsen’s audience the very idea of such a concept would have been shocking, outrageous, unthinkable; hence the power of A Doll’s House, now playing at the Lowry until 12th March.

 

From today’s perspective, we can see how Ibsen lulled his audience into a false state of contentment, the not-too-bright but devoted wife led into error by her own devotion and rescued at the last moment by the love and forgiveness of others. Except that the story doesn’t end there as she makes sense of her experience and the happy ending suddenly crashes and burns – or, if you prefer, the sentimentally-predictable suddenly becomes raw and unknown, with the howling winds of freedom sounding a wake-up clarion to the oppressed.

 

Discuss. But what’s interesting about Chris Honer’s production, of a new adaptation by Bryony Lavery, is how it manages to preserve the impact of that unexpected ending while not needing to go too far down the road of modernisation. Granted, there are one or two contemporary phrases which sit uncomfortably with a cast dressed in period tails and bustles, but there’s a feeling that this is a new play, even when one knows it isn’t.

         

The cast, of course, makes this work. Ken Bradshaw’s Torvald is a very personable and likeable chauvinist, clearly an intelligent man who loves but doesn’t understand; without him, played as he is, Nora’s epiphany cannot make sense. And Emma Cunliffe pulls this off beautifully, her Nora delightfully hooked on macaroons and proud of her secret machination, yet seeming not the brightest bulb on the tree, convincingly growing through her emotional journey into an individual woman, slightly bewildered still but nevertheless certain of her actions. In a piece that could so easily be just more man-bashing, these two achieve a near-perfect portrayal of how good intentions just aren’t enough.

         

The rest of the cast propel them to this vital ending with unerring precision. Mrs Linde seemed very peculiar at first, almost an automaton, before it became clear that it was her hard experiences which had made her so. It could be difficult then to allow her to soften as she must without contrivance, yet Sarah Ball manages this effortlessly. Paul Barnhill’s Krogstad, clearly a bitter man with nothing to lose and seemingly no redeeming features, applies exactly the right pressure to get things moving; it’s a pleasant surprise to find later that he is a human being after all. Daniel Brocklebank enjoys himself as Dr. Rank but not too much, while Verity-May Henry (Helene) and Roberta Kerr (Anne-Marie) provide exactly the correct degree of servant support, a period detail hard to achieve.

 

A niggle occurs when the children arrive: their performances are flawless, but one is forced to assume that the Helmers believe in adoption.

 

The only other concern was the intrusive and unnecessary background music, doubtless intended to ensure the audience knew how Nora felt. But Emma Cunliffe needs no irritating drone to tell us this and, no, I don’t mean Torvald.

 

This production, overall, takes what could be a stagy old suffragette and shows that she’s still a fresh young woman with her own ideas, exactly as Ibsen intended. Updated yet perfectly preserved.

 

A Doll’s House, the Manchester Library Theatre Company,

at the Lowry Theatre from 24th February to 12th March.

 

Tickets: 0843-208 6010 or www.librarytheatre.com

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