Relocating Ibsen’s infamous feminist 30 years on, transforming her from Norwegian small-town wife to the spouse of a senior British politician, certainly ups the ante on contemporary parallels. But although Zinnie Harris’ new version of “A Doll’s House” gains in relevance, it does so at a price. Gillian Anderson brings beautifully calibrated regret to Nora, but the undue emphasis of both translation and Kfir Yefet’s production for the Donmar ultimately undo her.
With the British parliament currently mired in a cross-party scandal over politicians’ inflated expenses, it’s small wonder the first night audience laughed at lines from Nora’s husband Thomas (Toby Stephens) like “As politicians, our staple is trust.” But the knowing nature of that laughter points up the problem with Harris’ approach.
Ironically, Thomas’ job itself does too much work. The position of a senior male politician, especially in 1907 when the play is now set, carries a slew of associations — stuffed-shirt, high status, bombast — that make the character too immediately knowable.
This means audiences are ahead of the character, an unengaging place to be unless everything is predicated on suspense, which is rarely the case, in this plot. Despite Stephens’ best efforts — his shudder of relief as the specter of blackmail is suddenly lifted is startlingly upsetting — the role now offers opportunities for illustration rather than engagement in moment-to-moment development. And without a fully rounded husband, the drama suffers.
Although the plot remains intact — naive wife, released from blackmail over a selflessly undertaken loan, discovers self-respect at the 11th hour — the shifts in detail and tone further unbalance proceedings.
Ibsen’s money-lending Krogstad is now Kelman, a wildly aggrieved politician, himself accused of fraud, who has been supplanted by Thomas. Kicking over a chair and slamming a book against the wall of designer Anthony Ward’s handsome oval room, Christopher Eccleston bristles with end-of-his-tether desperation. But his D.H. Lawrence manner and language (“I’d still have your husband by the testicles”) seem too modern and wildly unlikely for a successful politician.
Helmer Yefet is clearly intent upon delineating everyone’s defining characteristics. But underlining can lead to undermining. Eccleston’s rage is so fully stated — again, too little for audiences to discover — that his transition to grateful lover of Tara Fitzgerald’s nicely pinched but similarly blunt Christine feels implausible.
Anderson’s Nora is the most complete performance. From a light, almost coquettish start, this patient, petite woman in upswept curls appears to grow in stature as her dilemma deepens.
Her body is thrillingly alert to her moods, caught and bent by painful degrees of sadness or diving into pragmatism when seized by a decision. By the time Thomas talks smugly about the dangers of exposing children to parental lies, Anderson appears hollowed out by fear. The actress is smartly placed on the opposite edge of the stage from her sanctimonious husband, and her eyes fill with tears.
That moment is so affecting because of its understatement. Too often elsewhere in the production, emotions run too high, too soon. More than a century after it was written, Nora’s final decision still remains genuinely iconic. It has the potential to pack a real punch, but this production’s earlier overstatement of themes and ideas rob it of surprise and passion.