Based on Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 play Et dukkehjem, A Doll’s House is a thought-provoking Scandinavian drama that tears into the domestic realm to expose the cracked relationship between a strikingly traditionalist husband and his free-spirited wife. Set in nineteenth-century Norway, yet holding a striking relevance in the present day, the play depicts the patronising control held by Torvald Helmer over his increasingly frustrated wife Nora, culminating in a final reckoning that stoked controversy amongst audiences at the time. Two days before the first run, Impact spoke to director Grace Lievesley, producer Zoe Smith and actors Lucy Chandler (Nora) and Daniel McVey (Torvald).
Without a doubt, it was the contemporary power of A Doll’s House that first grabbed the attention of the team. “The play may be over one hundred years old,” explains Lievesley, directing her first production at the NNT, “but the relationships between the characters and the struggles Nora goes through are just as relevant today.
“In fact, the first time I read the script several years ago, I didn’t like it. I thought Nora was just irritating,” she admits, “but then I read it again and again, and every time I did so I realised more and more that Nora was a human being and that all the emotions she goes through still affect women all over the world.
With the character of Nora so pivotal to the theme of female liberation, getting her right was always a major concern for the team. “There are lots of different sides to Nora,” Chandler explains. “She’s a fun mum who loves her kids and is a child at heart, but she is also a wife trying to please her husband and makes sure everything runs smoothly at home.”
“It’s been difficult to get into the mind-set of their relationship” – Lucy Chandler
The interaction between Nora and her husband, which exposes the key elements of the play, was by no means easy to recreate. As Chandler points out, “It’s been difficult to get into the mind-set of their relationship. When we started the rehearsal process I was certainly not at the same stage of understanding Nora as I am today.”
McVey, playing the domineering Torvald, agrees. “Torvald is a man who loves his wife, but also views her as a possession. He can’t see her as a person, he only sees her as his wife and believes that she should do as he says, as man of the house.”
“As a feminist, I found Torvald particularly difficult to play,” he reveals, “he does become quite a repulsive character, certainly towards the end of the play.”
“It may seem old-fashioned to show women not being independent, but the truth is that many women still aren’t. I want our production to be a wake-up call, in a sense.” – Zoe Smith
To Lievesley, the importance of the breakdown in the Helmers’ relationship (which starts over a financial misdemeanour on Nora’s part) is what makes it so applicable to the modern world. “I want people to realise that this story is still relevant today. Nora is everywoman. She has to ask her husband for money and she still feels under his control, even though she doesn’t know any differently.”
Smith, now producing her second NNT performance, further stresses the importance of female agency throughout the play. “It may seem old-fashioned to show women not being independent, but the truth is that many women still aren’t. I want our production to be a wake-up call, in a sense.”
The team’s focus on grasping the play’s contemporary relevance spills into the technical side as well. The stage consists of a large white square, bordered by LED lights, marking the performance space. Surrounding the square is a black, ‘neutral’ space, accessible via a door embedded in a back wall covered in household objects – ranging from plant pots to a vacuum cleaner – all painted white. In front of the wall stands a lone, pallid tree: a stark reminder of the play’s Scandinavian setting.
“We’ve really aimed to add a modern twist to the production.” – Zoe Smith
Of course, the stage design has been carefully prepared for maximum effect. “On its own, the pale set wouldn’t seem to have much life to it,” explains Smith, “that’s where the tech comes in.”
“To layer over the plainness of the backdrop, we’ve got different coloured washes stretched over the main lights. These overlap to produce shadows in different colours.” The effect is undeniably disorientating, akin to looking at a 3-D picture without the correct lenses.
The use of sound, be it via overhead speakers or the television set that sits neatly against the backdrop, is also key to contemporising the play. “We’ll be playing up-to-date news articles, including some relating to the recent abuse allegations in the media. We’ve really aimed to add a modern twist to the production.”
As Lievesley goes on to point out, their modernisation of Ibsen’s work extends to the use of the performance space itself. “I wanted to alienate and unsettle the audience by taking it out of its original context,” she remarks, “I’ve tried to think outside the box and consider what would definitely not have been featured when the play was originally shown.”
The use of the black space around the central area acts as an example of this innovative approach. “The two actors playing the Helmer children will sit on the stage the entire time, waiting in the neutral zone. All of the lies and corruption happen in the room represented by the white central space, meaning that the children appear too innocent to be affected by them.”
Of course, all this relates back to the team’s key objective. As McVey considers: “The main thing with any piece of theatre is that the audience are still talking about it afterwards.”
“This play will certainly raise a lot of questions. In most productions with a feminist edge, the female characters are shown in a very good light whilst the male characters are shown in a very poor one. But in this, every character has their own flaws.”
Perhaps it is the unconventional side to A Doll’s House that gives the play its starkly modern edge. In a society that often seems complacent towards the continued oppression of women across the world, one can’t help but feel as though more stories like this need to be told.
The Doll’s House is on at the Nottingham New Theatre 22-25 November.
Check out Alice’s excellent review of the play here!
Play poster courtesy of Nottingham New Theatre.
Set image courtesy of Zoe Smith.