It’s been quite a year for Ibsen in London. First, a fairly standard, if accomplished, version of Rosmersholm in the West End. Then, a radical version of Peer Gynt which moved to Scotland in David Hare’s hands to become Peter Gynt at the National. Now, one of the most performed and well-known titles in Ibsen’s oeuvre, A Doll’s House, gets a revival and reinterpretation at the Lyric in Hammersmith, directed by Rachel O’Riordan.
The basic story is of a young couple, married for just short of a decade, bringing up their young children. The husband has just been promoted. The wife, younger, pretty, is referred to as a “little skylark” and indulged for her spendthrift ways. This has not been tampered with in Tanika Gupta’s version, but Nora has now become Niru, Torvald is now Tom, the blackmailing moneylender Krogstad becomes lowly clerk Kaushik Das, and Christine becomes Mrs Lahiri.
The place is no longer chilly Norway, but the heated setting of Colonial India, where Tom Helmer is retired military and now a tax official. The political implications are hard to escape, and when Das (a telling performance from Assad Zaman) makes his move to bring down the idyllic Helmer home we realise the plight of the indigenous Indians: oppressed by those who see them as illiterate, immoral and beyond redemption.
Niru’s act of committing fraud to save her husband’s life and spare her dying father unnecessary worry threatens to cause catastrophe at Christmas-time (a Christian festival, celebrated as Niru converted from her childhood religion on her marriage). Meanwhile, a childhood friend and poor widow (Mrs Lahiri, played by Tripti Tripuraneni with some sensitivity), becomes her willing confidante.
Dr Rank (Colin Tierney, playing the sick friend of Tom and devoted admirer of Niru with tact and tenacity) is the willing recipient of Niru’s teasing with her dancing bells (“can I put my foot in your lap?”) but he is more radical than her husband with regard to the rights of the Indian natives. He represents the future of the white man in India, even if he will not be there to see it.
Placed within a marvellous set from Lily Arnold which traps Niru within her large and beautiful garden, with lights pinpointing the letterbox and walls allowing a site of refuge, A Doll’s House proves to be a perceptive and interesting take on the traditional play. It retains the plot and the sense, but adds something more.
In particular, in making Tom Hellman such an unpleasant character. He takes umbrage at Army comrade Das addressing him “as if he were an equal”; he behaves less than gentlemanly to both Mrs Lahiri and to Niru’s faithful maid Uma (Arinder Sadhra). As for Niru, he treats her as a literal possession, moving from trying to force his affections on her (“no? but I’m your husband”) to showing his full distaste for her race, religion and culture when the calamity is revealed. No “miracle of miracles” here, and not a hint of redemption. Eliot Cowan has a tricky task to pull this role off, but he eventually makes us recoil at the lack of understanding Tom has of his own plight and the position he now holds.
As Niru, Vasan is incredible, whether dancing around the space, girlishly giggling as she hides her forbidden sweets, glowing with pride as she describes her husband’s good fortune, clutching the walls in desperation, and finally, all grown up and full of fire, delivering her final speech to a Hellman who cannot believe his doll is not the docile and devoted pet he thought her to be, but an independent woman who just won’t take the abuse he doles out.
A Doll’s House continues at the Lyric Hammersmith until the 5 October. Photo credits Helen Maybanks.