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A Doll’s House – Midweek Review

A DOLL’S HOUSE
By Henrik Ibsen
Directed by Phil Portland
Reviewed by Paul Brooks

GARGANTUAN TASK OF IBSEN UPDATE MET WITH APLOMB

When Phil Portland suggested to the Repertory Theatre committee that he wanted to direct a 1950s update of Henrik Ibsen’s 19th century Norwegian classic, A Doll’s House, did he know he was taking on a gargantuan task?
And did he realise he would need the perfect cast; a selection of players of real talent and determination?
If there were opposition to his choice of play, they must be sulking in silence now, because Phil, the crew and his band of actors have carried it off in style, performing the improbable with aplomb and, if not ease, certainly the appearance of it.

The play was written in 1879, and has been performed around the world ever since, so if I casually give away the plot in this review, you will have to forgive me; this is, after all, not The Mousetrap, where each audience is sworn to secrecy. No, I’m sure the storyline of A Doll’s House is public knowledge by now . . . but, for the sake of regularity, I will summarise the plot.
Set in Wellington in 1959, the story centres on Torvald and Nora Helmer; she a housewife, he a newly installed bank manager. He came to the job via a short career as a lawyer … Ibsen’s world was apparently quite different to our own.
The couple has two children, a boy, Ivor, and a girl, Emmy.
They have a nanny and housekeeper, Anne-Marie, who was Nora’s nanny some years before.
Torvald’s closest and oldest friend is Dr Rank, a gentleman who carries the strain of unrequited and unspoken love for his friend’s wife, a fact not mentioned until later in the play.
Nora has a friend, Kristine Lind, who appears out of the blue, looking for a job, but seemingly at a moment when Nora most needs a friend.
The villain of the piece is Nils Krogstad, a man who loaned Nora money when she needed it to take her ailing husband on a therapeutic trip which saved his life.

To do so, she forged her father’s signature.
Although written long ago, the societal mores were just as restrictive in 1959 New Zealand, especially for women. Much had to be done with their husband’s – or a man’s – signed consent and he was lord of his manor.
The play first sets the scene, giving the audience a look at the machinations of the Helmer family home. Torvald treats his wife with patronising condescension, calling her his Little Lark and suffocating her in her own home. Her life is his life and they are both married to his job and status. She obeys his every command as a good wife should, according to those ancient rules.
The story deals with her awakening and the realisation that Krogstad’s threat to reveal all will not be the end of everything, but the beginning of something.
Nora is played by Jessica Alder and she does a fine job. The role is complicated and demanding, requiring a visible awakening and subtle changes in behaviour and outlook, and the lines to memorise would defeat many an experienced actor. She is Nora Helmer and we believe her.
Her husband is played by experienced thespian – and I mean that in the nicest possible way – Phil Hudson. He plays the condescending Torvald beautifully and when he learns of her duplicity, even though it was to save his life, he is outraged, betrayed, unable to hold up his head in society if all is revealed. Phil accomplishes all that with credibility.
Karen Hughes, a fine actor and no stranger to the Repertory stage, is Kristine Lind. She has to combine the concern of friendship with disbelief, jealousy and a desire to put things right – but not in the way that Nora hopes.
Richard Leith’s Dr Rank – we never know his Christian name – plays the constant visitor who secretly loves Nora. He’s also terminally ill, so revealing his infatuation holds no fears for a man with no future. Richard’s character has that perfect mix of affability and inactive and unignited treachery.
Carey Knapp always plays a good baddie, and the character of Krogstad needs that veneer of cruelty coupled with a firm conviction that he has every right to behave the way he does.
Nadine Rayner plays Anne-Marie; slightly grumpy but with a strong fondness for the children and a ready smile when needed. She is perfect for the role.
The children, Freya Wrigglesworth and Konrad Shaw are more often neither seen nor heard, but their appearances are relaxed and believable.
Phil Portland has gathered a good cast to interpret a difficult play and they succeed in good measure.
One of the joys of Repertory Theatre is its intimacy, where actors can speak in normal voices and there is not the urge to overact as there would be in bigger arenas. Their facial expressions, subtle body language and conversational voices are received easily by an attentive audience.
Add to that Mark Rayner’s set vision, James Graves’ and Kerry Mountstephen’s costumes faithful to the time and a strong crew and A Doll’s House is well worth seeing.