The first professional production in London of Ibsen's "A Doll's House" (translated by the Scottish drama critic William Archer) took place on 7 June 1889. As an intimate, passionate portrayal of women's subservient role in marriage and society, it questioned conservative Victorian values and was even viewed as unconscious propaganda for the women's movement.
Janet Achurch received overnight fame as the heroine Nora while the outrageous and controversial themes of the play were discussed in the press for the three weeks of the production. Ibsen was bemused: "My enemies have been a great help to me - their attacks have been so vicious that people come flocking to see what all the shouting was about."
Ibsen's play depicted 19th century life in the small provincial town of his native Norway as stifling, hypocritical, preoccupied with scandal and gossip yet the social and moral issues he raised in this modernist drama were universal. In this stunning, shocking and equally controversial new version conceived and directed by Lee Breuer, we are invited to enter that private patriarchal world of happy Victorian families with a fresh and distorted perspective.
From a bare stage, red plush velvet drapes descend and three walls of the Helmer home rise up all around. Nora lives with her husband Torvald and their three children. It's Christmas time. The set is a child size doll's house furnished with miniature table and chairs, tiny piano, desk and bed. Torvald, played with proud pomposity by Mark Povinelli (height around 4ft) sits in homely comfort, while Nora (performed by the dolled-up blonde-coiffeured, 6ft tall Maude Mitchell) has to kneel at his feet to converse at his level.
All the men in the cast are small while the towering women have to crouch and crawl around this child's puppet theatre of a house - literally having to belittle themselves in front of the men. Nora is very much trapped in her marriage. Within this innovative concept of space and scale, nothing characterizes Ibsen's notion of patriarchy and gender inequality more clearly than the image of these little men dominating and commanding women nearly twice their size.
Torvald patronizes his wife, treating her like a vulnerable child - "my little skylark," "my squirrel" - while she responds in high-pitched girlish tones and exaggerated fake Norwegian accent. This adds unexpected humour and absurdity to this make-believe, Alice in Wonderland scenario. Nora dotes on him and flatters his ego at the cost of destroying her own. Like her daughter, she too plays with a blond-haired doll, a replica of herself, tearing its head off to find hidden macaroons.
Kristine, a widowed friend of Nora needs a job and she promises to ask Torvald to find her a position at his bank. Nora confides to Khristine that she once secretly (and illegally) borrowed money to save Torvald's life when he was very ill, but she has not told him in order to protect his pride. Krogstad, who lent Nora the money, threatens to reveal that she forged her father's signature to obtain the loan, unless she convinces her husband to safeguard his job. With the entire cast reduced to doll like status, the narrative is dramatised with colourful theatricality inspired by Victorian melodrama, silent films, puppetry, clowning and circus acts. Live music accompaniment - performed entertainingly by Ning Yu - features a collage of Greig's piano works.
Finally Nora finds the strength of character to confront Torvald, calling him "petty" and "small" - the word, more relevant than ever before, echoing in the ensuing silence. Her final display of feminist angst and sexual freedom is transformed into a magnificent operatic aria. Nora's daughter rides her rocking horse, waving her brother's toy sword and repeats her mother's parting words as the metaphorical door of the Doll's House slams shut.
Show times: 4 - 28 August, 2007, 7.30pm