Keeping up their impeccable record of attracting star names to their productions, the Donmar Warehouse have assembled a very impressive ensemble to perform Zinnie Harris’ reworking of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. Leading the cast as Nora is Gillian Anderson in one of her rare appearances on the London stage and she is ably supported by Christopher Eccleston, Tara Fitzgerald and Toby Stephens. So a feast of acting talent on show, which is always a great start!
However, I am a self-professed Ibsen hater, though I am always willing to give it a try, and I was particularly interested in this production as Zinnie Harris has made some substantial changes to the original. Most notably, the action has been resituated to England in 1909 and the profession of Nora’s husband has been changed from banking to politics. So the story remains about Nora’s slow realisation of how unhappy she is, exacerbated by the threat of blackmail, and her struggle to escape this domestic prison in the face of every single social convention. What the rewrite does is make the context much wider: instead of it just being a domestic battlefield, Nora also has to deal with the arena of political reputations through her blackmailer’s actions. For the most part, I think the rewrite is successful, but then I was never that familiar with the original, and so had no real basis on which to make the comparison on which nearly every other major review of this play is based.
Gillian Anderson is simply electrifying in the main role of Nora. Rarely off the stage, she is initially awesomely sexy as the coquettish wife, using her physicality to dominate her husband; as events spiral out of her control, she conveys the terror and desperation well, culminating in an amazing tarantella dance sequence and her final graduation to the actualisation of self-possession as the final act closes is skilfully done, remaining convincing throughout. Tara Fitzgerald gives very able support as Nora’s friend, Christine, but is not really given that much to do. Toby Stephens does superbly well in portraying the rather unsympathetic husband, subtly suggesting there may be a little more to him than the self-righteous pomp he displays in the pulsating final act. And Christopher Eccleston is very convincing, simultaneously aggressive and tortured, bringing a real sense of menace.
As ever with the Donmar, the production values were extremely good, the set looks beautiful, the curved bookshelf as the backdrop in particular is very effective, and the costumes look good, especially the stunning purple dress in act 2. One note of a little concern for me however was the sound quality. I was sat on the front row of the circle on the side and was very surprised about how much ‘back of the head’ watching there was. I’m deaf, so lip-read a lot and normally the positioning of the actors at the Donmar is quite sympathetic, but with this play I struggled a bit with the clarity, often the one actor with their back to us was also blocking another actor from view. But this cast only a little shadow over the evening.
This is an impeccably acted, highly watchable production, though possibly not one for Ibsen purists. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and it has been a play that I have thought about since seeing it too. Tickets have sold out for the run, but day tickets and standing places are available every day.