"Scandinavian Scandal, Modernised, Intensified, Dramatic."
by Arthur Duncan for remotegoat on 16/03/17

Director, Anna Friend has bitten off a huge chunk of ambition by staging Ibsen’s monumental shout against male domination over women, in such a small space as The Alma Tavern Theatre, in Bristol.

Schoolhouse Productions are absolutely ‘on trend’ in presenting Ibsen’s work, as proved tonight by the house being packed with a monstrous audience of women; free-thinking, confident and out to enjoy the play. Men were slightly represented and benefited from experiencing this drama which after 136 years, is still relevant and entertaining in this spirited, modern version by Simon Stephens.

Women’s Emancipation and Realism in Drama were two rising tides, flooding fin-de-siecle Europe but Ibsen surged ahead of both these waves. Premiered in Copenhagen, (not Norway !) in 1879, ‘A Doll’s House’ presents a respectable, middle-class housewife, Nora Helmer, who for noble reasons, has fallen into debt and endangered her husband’s career at the bank, by forging a signature. Fraud is rightly a serious crime but Ibsen focused on the unjust social conventions enshrined into Law, that held adult females to be almost equal in status with children: ie. subservient to a senior male, father or husband.

Nora awakens through the story and extremes of emotion, from a submissive ‘Lady of the house’ controlled by a patronizing, dictatorial husband, until finally becoming enlightened to her need to assert herself, to find inner courage to demand her right to be her husband’s equal; an independent Person.

Jasmine Atkins-Smart is admirable throughout as Nora, entering in a whirl, she flits like a moth about her chores and simpers to charm her husband, Torvald. This highly skilled actor, emphasizes Nora’s inner-turmoil, the driving-force in the character, who only relaxes when flirting with Dr Rank. Nora’s increasing tension is sustained as she dances a frantic tarantella and even produces real tears. Atkins-Smart’s creation of Nora Helmer is powerful and deserves opportunity to mature, in a longer run than only six shows. If other venues are available, please consider this profitable transfer.

Likewise, powerful and deserving an extended run, is Giles Coram in the role of Nora’s husband, Torvald. Projecting his voice - perhaps too forcefully, in the limited Alma space - Coram yet diminishes to a caressing whisper while anxiously consoling his wife’s distress … until made aware of her indiscretion. Physically perfect in the part, Coram is tall and energetic, crackles with vitality and gives his wife patronising ‘compliments’ whenever he thinks he should. But he crumples convincingly in a gripping scene, when Nora accuses him, as he deserves, of blind indifference to the reality of their relationship and her real self.

Ibsen also dared to thrust into public debate, other dark issues that lurked, then and now, in the under-bellies of outwardly decent communities. There is potential infidelity between flirtatious Nora and the ailing, love-lorn Dr Rank, played with robust cheer by Daniel Hawthorne. A touching role, Dr Rank drinks to drown his depression, supposedly caused by a disease, he knows will soon prove fatal. But whenever he is close to the woman he secretly adores, his best-friend’s wife, he becomes happier.

Rank’s disease results from his father’s youthful debauchery; the playwright’s metaphor for ills of society, visited upon its succeeding generations. [Ibsen later returns to this theme notably in his play, ‘Ghosts.’ ] Hawthorne achieves a difficult task in showing us his ‘pretended bon-homie’ as if genuine, while revealing to us, his real tragedy, as if trying to hide it.

Outstanding even among this talented company is Jenny Jope, excellent as Christine the widowed, unglamorous childhood friend of Nora. Every detail of Jope’s portrayal reflects Christine’s insecurity; she arrives needing to beg a big favour. Living in the town, she discovers her erstwhile lover, the sinister Krogstad (Ben Nash) causing Christine further disquiet. In this quietly under-stated portrayal, firm in its credibility, Jenny Jope is all but perfect as Nora’s old ‘friend and confidante.’

Ben Nash as Krogstad, believably menaces Nora with dire consequences to her happiness, which will be affected later, by developments in his relationship with Christine. Alexandra Stroud is a competent, long-suffering child-minder, popping-in when called, usually. Nora’s child is brightly played on alternate nights by Yasmin Priestner Burton or Kristian Dowling. A ‘fully equipped kitchen-diner’ stage-set, was committee-built under the imaginative, artistic eye of producer, Holly Newton. This meticulous set is brilliantly lit by David Jell.

Near the close, Ibsen’s essential point is made plain. A woman is not a doll and Nora Helmer, after nine years a slave to marital conformity, discards her falsely-imposed persona. It’s worth the ticket for that final scene, alone. The rest … is bonus.

Visit the Helmers’ in their little house, asap.

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