State Theatre Company of South Australia. Dunstan Playhouse. 4 Jul 2017
It is a play about love-hate and it is a production which evokes love-hate.
Modern adaptations are fraught with risk in threatening a playwright’s creative impulse and cultural integrity. To fully appreciate them, it is wise to know the original work which often lives under the dismissive label of “museum theatre”.
This State Theatre production of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House has been given the modern-day touch by South Australia’s most promising new playwright, Elena Carapetis. She has brought characters out of 1870s Norway and into the bright lights of modern-day somewhere-nowhere wherein the production has placed them upon an unadorned raised platform in the centre of a stage surrounded on three sides by walls of headlights. This is a set created by a lighting designer and it looks like it. It is not Geoff Cobham’s subtlest design and, while a lot of the production’s fierce and stark lighting has its own good aesthetic, it is peculiarly aggressive, confronting the audience with blinders and, in fact, one flash of such bedazzling brightness that the audience almost goes into shock.
In this ultra-modern minimalist concept, cast members sit upon orange plastic cafe chairs on the sidelines onstage. The banks of headlights are dimmed to put them in the shadows while they are not performing.
To represent the family living room, characters carry their own chairs up onto the dais. In the final scene of the play, the chairs are lined up around the dais as if it has become a doctor’s waiting room.
There are no creature comforts. A child is put to bed by being placed on the floor.
In her adaptation, Carapetis has killed off one of the two children in the play but elevated the presence of the remaining child who is very nicely played on opening night by Clio Tinsley. She symbolises the family unit and also the fate of the female. She’s the little doll in the doll’s house.
Carapetis has stayed fastidiously true to Ibsen’s portrait of Nora as a victim of patriarchal society. Famously, Nora says that she is now wife and before that she was daughter. But, once upon a time, she was born a “person". The play is about this sentiment. It is about an oppressed woman’s urge to free herself to be her own person, not the coerced object of societal expectations.
Nora is a woman who has everything. She had an affluent upbringing and she married well. Her adoring husband, Torvald, has just had a promotion in the bank. She has a nanny. She has spending money.
But there are underlying complications and terrible secrets in her seemingly superficial world. These unfold and the world gradually unravels.
Carapetis has overlaid the script with modern idiom. She has made Torvald younger, sexier and more fun that Ibsen’s straight-laced version. And director Geordie Brookman has picked a superb actor in Dale March to establish the dark and light of the loving but controlling husband. This Torvald is likeable. One feels more empathy in realising that he, too, is a victim of gender expectations.
The modern characters use mobile phones and iPads. They throw the f-word about. They wear torn jeans. They’re obsessed with kale.
They sing pop songs and they dance to raucous rap music.
It is not even the badly-done Tarantella for this Nora when it comes to distracting her husband by rehearsing her party dance. It’s a writhing, twitching, undulating epic of desperate eroticism. It is extraordinarily ugly, but it comes as a theatrical underscoring of the fear and loathing Nora feels for her male-placating predicament in life.
And she’s surrounded by headlights polka-dotting the stage walls. She’s the deer in the headlights of the patriarchy. She’s the out-of-control dancing toy of the men. She’s loved for what she represents but not for who she is.
All of this the young Miranda Daughtry performs with absolute skill and commitment. She connects with the audience from the word go. She is a wonderful Nora and an exciting find for the new State Theatre ensemble.
The Congolese actor Rashidi Edward makes interesting new chemistry. His casting as the awful Krogstad adds the dimension of racism to this version of A Doll’s House. Krogstad is the unpopular outsider, the crook, the loser. Comments about discrimination against him in the workplace suddenly seem colour-coded.
Edward embodies this and his romantic elements with calm panache, albeit sometimes inaudibly. Rachel Burke plays Kristine, Nora’s old friend who turns up as a penniless widow looking for work. It’s a lovely meaty supporting role and Burke devours it with style; similarly Anna Steen as Anna, the family retainer and nanny. In today’s A Doll’s House, she is strong and athletic, darting about the stage like the wind.
And then there is Nathan O’Keefe as poor Lars, the doctor who is an ever-present family friend. This character usually is cast as an older man but O’Keefe is one of this country’s wonderful actors and he nails poignantly the pathos of the lonely man who is not only physically sick but love sick, too. He quietly breaks the audience’s heart.
Altogether, the Carapetis and Brookman modern A Doll’s House is something of a wild ride.
It blares and glares. It ends with a bellow which impudently marries it to a tradition of theatrical tragedies.
But the play’s the thing. And there it is.
I liked it.
When: 4 to 22 July
Where: Dunstan Playhouse
Photography by Andy Rasheed