In a bold new recreation of Henrik Ibsen’s classic play A Doll’s House, director Steven Mitchell Wright and writer Lally Katz, present a play that is both challenging and refreshing to our senses.
For those who need a refresher from high school studies, A Doll’s House, centres around Nora (Helen Christinson), the wife and mother who supports her successful banker husband Torvald (Hugh Parker), to a fault. When someone threatens to reveal the lengths this lady of the house would do to keep her perfect life intact, a complex story of lies and cover-ups darkens the very fabric of her family’s existence. At the time of writing in 1879, A Doll’s House was quite controversial with its themes of domestic revolution and women’s liberation; themes which still remain relevant today, making it the most performed play in the world.
Presented by La Boite Theatre as part of the Brisbane Festival, there is a distinctly Steven Mitchell Wright (Danger Ensemble) stamp to this work with its highly stylised language, lavish costuming, and staging. Defying convention and genre, there is a nod to Epic theatre, with the actors walking defined choreographed paths and almost never looking directly at each other – physically manifesting the disconnect between the characters. There’s also a wink to Surrealist theatre with the gorgeously designed colour-coded costumes including the cupie doll-like pink Victorian dress of Nora’s which expresses the subconscious trappings of her inner world. Adding to this, the alienation technique of inserting song into the piece as musical soliloquies, while highlighting important reflective moments, distanced the audience from the production. There was even symbolism in the set design, with a chair placed in each corner of the square stage, in which each had part of a leg cut off. This made the actors either balance precariously atop, or tip over, sitting unbalanced in their surroundings, and represented the inequality of the sexes in this feminist play.
The final scene then jolted us into the present tense, by Nora’s contemporary costume and character gear change, which took a little while for my sensibilities to adjust to. Whether these winks and nods to various theatre genres were consciously woven into the piece or not, it certainly provided a refreshing reversion and great forage for a theatrical study paper. However, for some audience members who don’t care about the cleverness of form, the lack of eye contact between the characters made it challenging to fully immerse themselves into the piece and relate to the characters. Personally, I found it engaged me more, especially as a widely performed classic that could have otherwise been pedestrian and painfully laborious to sit through a 160 minute three-act structure with two intervals.
Speaking of which, let’s talk about the second interval. The music was so loud, it was near impossible to share any kind of discussion with my theatre companion. Were we being chased out of the theatre on purpose? There wasn’t a huge scene change to surprise the audience when they came back in so one was left wondering why. Incongruous with the act preceding, the music felt like we were at a rave with thumping beats blasting out and interrupting conversations about the room. In fact, older patrons were blocking their ears as they re-entered the theatre space. It’s a minor quibble, but one that other patrons made and is worth noting.
The set design by Dan Potra, on the other hand was enchanting. The stage was a square parquet platform with a twisting Repunzel-like dead vine canopy overhead. The stage surprisingly turned around to further trap the inhabitants beneath when the vines fixed on each corner became twisted and entangled, creating more obstacles for the characters to overcome.
At the back of the stage was as a floor to ceiling plastic scrim which secondary action took place; a hint of other characters going about their business in other rooms of the house. Special mention to Ben Hughes’ beautiful lighting design towards the end where the actors simultaneously lit the stage beneath, revealing the cracks, was just brilliant.
The cast of five worked excellently together as an ensemble and were thoroughly enjoyable to watch. Hugh Parker as purple-haired Torvald, especially stood out and commanded the stage with his natural leadership as the new manager of the bank. Chris Beckey as the green envious Krogstad was the type of villain we all loved to hate, and surprisingly even pitied in some moments. Helen Christinson’s heightened characterisation as Nora took a little while to warm up to until I got that it was a facade she was fronting to her husband (and the rest of the world). After that I felt ‘in’ on the guise and could empathise and take the journey with her. Damien Cassidy as the dank Dr Rank, dressed in gothic attire, reminded me of Eeyore with his pessimistic outlook on life. Although the role was a smaller one, Cassidy filled out the character to its fullest potential. Cienda McNamara as Nora’s long-term friend Kristine had the most impressive singing voice of the cast, yet her characterisation was not as stylised as the others. Perhaps this was a directorial decision as she was an outsider and not so embroiled in the family’s affairs (until later)?
Overall, La Boite’s re-visioning of A Doll’s House under the direction of Steven Mitchell Wright, created a bold stylistic work and a lavish visual feast that delighted and challenged, but ultimately entertained.