British actress Janet McTeer’s dizzying star turn in Anthony Page’s revival of Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” is reason enough for this West End transfer. The production has other fine elements — a terrific supporting cast, Page’s lively direction — but it’s McTeer’s mercurial spin on Nora (girlish giggles one second, an expression of dire panic the next) that brings Ibsen’s 118-year-old play to such vivid stage life.
McTeer, who recently won London’s Olivier Award for her West End perf of the role, carefully charts Nora’s evolution from a pampered little “skylark” who knows “so little of how difficult life can be” to a woman of towering independence willing to risk everything she loves for the sake of freedom. Both McTeer and director Page understand that such a transformation is credible only if Nora’s strength, however latent, exists from the beginning and blossoms through tragedy and pain. Watch as McTeer, early in the play, hides a sack of sweets from her disapproving husband, or uses baby talk to get her way: Small acts of subversion are merely the first steps to Nora’s ultimate escape.
McTeer’s risky performance — in less talented hands it could be misconstrued as busy — is a whirlwind. Expressions pass quickly across her face, she laughs in short, loud bursts or longer giggles, her nervous hands never rest. Nora is a panicked woman, and McTeer has such complete control over her every jitter that the performance comes across as a beautifully (and skillfully) choreographed frenzy.
What causes the panic, of course, is Nora’s secret. In a small Norwegian town in 1879 (Deirdre Clancy’s living room set is authentic if a bit below Broadway standards), Nora has the perfect home, a loving husband (Owen Teale) and two adorable sons (Liam Aiken, Paul Tiesler). She’s thrilled that her husband’s new job as a bank manager will bring more money into the household: Now she can pay off the money she covertly borrowed years ago when Torvald, her husband, was ill with tuberculosis. The ever-righteous Torvald thinks the money came from Nora’s father, and would be aghast at the prospect that his good little wife dealt with a shady money-lender. On top of everything, Nora forged her father’s signature to get the loan, a criminal offense.
From there, plot developments and complications twist and turn like an O. Henry short story. Nora’s old friend Kristine (Jan Maxwell) arrives seeking a bank job from Torvald, who offers her the position that will be open once he fires a corrupt employee named Krogstad (Peter Gowen). That employee, of course, is the money-lender who can expose Nora’s shameful secret. The play essentially chronicles Nora’s breakdown as the truth and its consequences gets closer and closer.
Given what today’s audiences might see as a crime of little import, productions of “A Doll’s House” must first and foremost convince that everything Nora loves, indeed even her life, is at stake should her secret be revealed. And here again, McTeer triumphs in showing how deep Nora’s pain and fear go. In one flawlessly directed scene she dances the tarantella to distract her husband from the ominous letter that reveals her secret, the dance building in tension and pace as Nora’s hysteria mounts.
Page also paces the production by reducing the voltage of the rest of the talented cast, with Maxwell giving a wonderfully restrained perf as the long-lost friend all but defeated by hardship. As Nora’s smug, overbearing husband, Teale captures the vanity and even malice of a man who uses love as a prison: His endearments (he calls his wife “Little Miss Stubborn Shoes”) are as demeaning as they are dismissive.
Rounding out the good cast is an appropriately sleazy Gowen as the money-lender and John Carlisle as Nora’s beloved (and dying) friend Dr. Rank.
Even at three hours, the production moves quickly, faltering only near the end when the newly emboldened Nora, having survived the revelation of her secret, confronts her husband over the inequity of their marriage. Ibsen’s at his most blunt here, and Frank McGuinness’ otherwise sterling translation betrays the playwright’s didacticism. Page sets much of the husband-wife debate at a small table, symbolically legitimate but a bit stagnant after the quick momentum of the preceding scenes.
Written 100 years before “Kramer vs. Kramer,” “A Doll’s House” demands that audiences sympathize with a woman who leaves her children to find her own independence. It’s a tough demand (not made easier by the two cute tykes cast as Nora’s sons), and audiences, even after watching Nora’s repeated humiliations for three hours, might still have a twinge of ill will for Nora when she walks out forever. Few, however, will have anything but admiration for the actress playing her.