In a season that might be dedicated to Nordic, and northern, gloom Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre is reviving Strindberg’s The Father and Stars in the Morning Sky, Alexander Galin’s drama of Moscow prostitutes being cleaned off the streets for the 1980 Olympics.
Starting matters off is Patricia Benecke’s production, in the Belgrade’s smaller B2 space, of 20th-century Swedish film and theatre director Ingmar Bergman’s adaptation of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (shrewdly reviewed on reviewsgate.com by Jan Pick). As Jan says it’s not a version that gives much scope to the people around Nora Helmer, though given Bergman’s title, that seems fair enough.
It does, though, raise an interesting question as to the gains and losses in reworking a classic drama. It might, for example, be argued how valuable Bergman’s Nora is as an introduction to Ibsen’s play, how much it is best seen as a way of re-examining a familiar classic.
And how much the sense of a setting well into the 20th-century (certainly in this production) affects a play that assumes a wife will depend on her husband’s income – hardly a set-up to resonate in a society where couples, married or otherwise, generally require two incomes to feed the great Behemoth Mortgage, or Rent.
At little over half the length of some Doll’s Houses, it’s a brief piece, a deconstruction which invites audiences to consider the progress of Ibsen’s central character.
And Penny Layden certainly shows Nora’s development, helped by the modernised, deliberately minimal setting. This is Christmas as Nora experiences it. The external short-cuts, like arrivals without the realistic paraphernalia of doorbells, doors or greeting of the people who affect her life over one Christmas, focus the action as a close-up of how events impact upon the central character.
At first these arrivals indicate the lack of control she has in her – as she calls it here – “merry” life; later they give a sense of the sudden problematic situations into which her life has collapsed.
Cleaned-down from Ibsen’s full amplitude, it’s possibly to observe clearly how Nora moves from childishness in Layden’s performance – an eagerness and enthusiasm that’s never faced real challenges. As Nora says in Ibsen’s play, she’s gone from being her father’s sheltered child to her husband’s protected wife, in both cases, she comes to realise, giving up her independent self all along.
Each challenge to her easy existence sees Layden’s Nora become more thoughtful and anxious. Later, too, she develops a sexual identity – productions in recent decades have often emphasised the sexual desire the strict bank-manager Torvald Helmer lets out when tired and emotional after a neighbours’ party. Here, Nora’s tarantella develops from fidgeting unease at her anxieties into a desperate act of seduction to keep her husband from discovering her secret.
It helps make the play’s most difficult point – how, after contented years as a toy for men, Nora suddenly develops an articulate understanding of the position of women. It doesn’t quite bring off the trick (the best attempt was Janet McTeer’s Nora years ago at London’s Playhouse. In the final scene McTeer’s serious Nora suddenly reverted momentarily to her earlier curls-and-plaything manner to make a point, giving a sense of her realisation how far she had come in a very short period).
But it provides a sense of how altered circumstances have brought Nora’s intelligence and resilience to life. Even the shock of Torvald’s complete undressing and lying down to sleep is important – Nora covers him up and, in a near-blackout, replaces her tarantella costume with her outdoor clothes. His final argument is conducted in hastily half-dressed desperation, the suited sense of earlier command utterly gone.
And as Nora finally steps out of the box set which has been their home, lugging her suitcase up the aisle, the grave expression on her face makes absolutely clear that Nora’s aware leaving home is only a start to rebuilding her life.
Nora is a fascinating reflection on A Doll’s House, and it could be pointed out Bergman has been more open with audiences than a director who reworks a script then puts it out under the original title. If it’s not ‘the thing itself’, British theatre’s hardly short of Doll’s House and this is an intriguing opportunity to see how one of the finest dramatic minds of the last century viewed a major work by one of the previous century’s finest dramatists.