By Simon Fearn
Most English Students like myself will have developed an affection for Ibsen after the First Year Introduction to Drama course, so the Collingwood Woodplayer’s upcoming revival of A Doll’s House will be welcome news. This production, however, challenges certain preconceptions about the classic play, particularly the tendency for Nora-based hero worship.
‘A lot of people see A Doll’s House as a bit of a feminist production with a mother leaving her children, which is something we haven’t done,’ begins director Shannon Burke. ‘For me it’s a play about the relationship between Nora and Torvald. In order for Nora to be with Torvald, she can’t be perfect either. There’s something that made them work earlier on.’ Whilst many readers tend to cheer at the moment when Nora leaves Torvald as a triumph over the patriarchy and 19th Century oppression, Burke is convinced that this is an overly simplistic reading. ‘Nora is flawed, she’s petty, she’s childish, she brings out the worst in Helmer and he brings out the worst in her,’ Burke continues. ‘I don’t think I see her particularly as a heroine, I see her as part of a failed relationship.’
Burke’s focus is resolutely on the characters as real people rather than the proto-feminist overtones of the text. When asked about the continued relevance of the play, Burke chooses to discuss the believability of the characters instead of the ways women continue to be oppressed. ‘There are people like Krogstad that have done terrible things to get ahead and there are people like Nora and Torvald who are stuck in unhealthy relationships and they don’t realise it. There are people like that every day, in every era, in every profession,’ she explains.
Burke’s interest is primarily in the way the characters change and develop throughout the play, and this has shaped the rehearsal process. ‘We made a decision to rehearse all of the scenes with Nora and Torvald back to back chronologically, skipping out the ones with the other characters just to show that progression,’ says Anna Galbraith (Nora). ‘Organically we all came to the conclusion that it was a play about a relationship. If you accept that, there’s no such thing as a relationship in which you don’t develop or change. The character you see at the beginning is very different to the character you see at the end, but also elements of that childish and impulsive nature come through in the way Nora leaves Helmer as well. She doesn’t leave as the perfect heroine – we downplayed the idea that she’s this huge feminist icon.’
As well as a more realistic conception of Nora as a flawed human being, Burke’s production is also sympathetic to supporting characters like Krogstad, who can often seem little more than the villain of the piece. ‘I absolutely love Krogstad as a character,’ protests Burke. ‘He’s not a villain at all! The main message of A Doll’s House is that these are people that have been moulded by the society they live in. I respect Krogstad a bit – he’s done a terrible thing but he’s doing something about it. We’ve really tried to get across the fact that it’s desperation that’s driven him to blackmail Nora and not malice. I don’t think there is a villain in A Doll’s House.’
The overall impression is that Burke and her cast are committed to exploring different interpretations of the text rather than falling back on the lazy assumptions that I made in my First Year exams. Galbraith feels that she now has a much better understanding of the play after taking on its much-discussed protagonist. ‘I also studied A Doll’s House in First Year,’ she tells me, ‘and I wish I’d done the play before I studied it because I would have got a much better mark!’ You can see co-producer Katie Reade’s admiration over Burke and her cast’s sensitive handling of the text. ‘It seems to be Shannon’s brainchild,’ she says. ‘I see her sitting and talking with the actors for absolutely ages, getting them to understand how she sees the characters and wants them to be portrayed. I feel like it’s her passion piece. I can see a genuine love for the play in everyone that’s involved and a desire to do it justice.’
A Doll’s House looks set to challenge those who think they know the play in a thoughtful production of a theatrical staple. ‘It’s a genuinely fresh take on what is a classic piece,’ concludes co-producer Arthur Lewis. It certainly promises to be eye-opening take on Ibsen.
‘A Doll’s House’ will run from Sat 18th to Mon 20th June at Collingwood College. Tickets will be available on the door.
Photograph: Samuel Kirkman