by Lynn on August 4, 2016

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Henrik Ibsen
Translated by Frank McGuinness
Directed by Daniel Brooks
Set by Lorenzo Savoini
Costumes by Victoria Wallace
Lighting by Kevin Lamotte
Composer and sound by Richard Feren
Choreography by Roberto Campanella
Cast: Damien Atkins
Michelle Fisk
Katherine Gauthier
Harper Gunn
Sarah Koehn
Diego Matamoros
Christopher Morris
Oyin Oladejo
Lukas Engel

Ibsen’s psychologically bracing play given a pretentious, self-indulgent production.

The Story. Nora Helmer (Katherine Gauthier) is a flighty, bird-like woman. Her husband Torvald (Christopher Morris) calls her his little songbird. He treats her almost like a pet or child in that marriage. She loves macaroons but he feels she likes them too much so she has to be clever in eating them on the sly.

He has a new job as the head of a bank. It was hard won. He had been ill and needed to take it easy for a year so Nora arranged for the family to go to Italy for a year so Torvald could recuperate. It cost a lot of money and the thought was that Nora’s father gave them the money for the trip. But he didn’t. Nora took care of it in a desperate way and kept the information from Torvald. When the truth comes out it challenges the very foundation of their marriage.

The Production. While A Doll’s House was written in the 1870s and some of the dialogue and attitudes in Frank McGuinness’s translation suggest ‘another time’, director Daniel Brooks has set this in the modern day. While feminism has made strides there are some areas, in marriage for example, that are still mired for some in a time where a wife ‘obeyed’ her husband. This is the ‘modern’ marriage of Nora and Torvald.

Lorenzo Savoini has designed a pristine, modern, elegant set of the Helmer living room. The furniture is white. The various objects around the room are perfectly placed. It’s just that you don’t get the sense that people live there, certainly not people with two children. Nora and Torvald have two young, rambunctious children. There is no sign of toys etc. Ok. They do have a maid and a nanny to clean up.

But the groupings of the furniture, the chairs, sofa, and chaise do not suggest this family wants company. No chair or couch is close to any other furniture for easy conversation. And we are told that one friend, Dr. Rank visits daily. Presumably he doesn’t just visit Torvald in his office. Hmm. The result is that characters sit and talk to each other with great expanses of stage between them, making the whole idea of conversation stilted and odd.

Also odd is the actual geography of the room. Where is the front door, one might ask? Characters enter through the stage left door, but occasionally exit stage right, where no one has ever entered. Hmm? When Nora leaves she goes to the lip of the stage and slides down to the ground and exits from the audience, presumably because the door through which she’s going has a mechanism that slams loudly. No door on stage has such capability. Hmm? Are we also supposed to think that since she exits through the audience this melds Nora’s world with ours? Oh, PULLeeeeze.

Daniel Brooks moves Nora around that stage like a skittish animal and not a bird. She flits from one seat to another chair to the sofa for no reason except perhaps to show how flighty? unsettled? fragile-minded she is. When she is surprised by a character entering the room, she screams as if frightened to death. You can add hysterical to the description of Nora. When Nora does have an epiphany about her marriage, when Torvald disappoints her and does not offer to take the blame for Nora’s crime, it should be a complete turning point in her behaviour. She should be snapped into maturity and clear thinking at this turn of events. Katherine Gauthier as Nora does handle this with a certain gravitas, but again, Daniel Brooks has Nora go upstage at one point, leaning against the wall and sinking down, hysterical. Because of this direction, and Katherine Gauthier’s general lack of depth of playing of Nora, I don’t believe one word of her performance. I don’t believe that woman would leave the room, let alone slam the door as she does it.

Christopher Morris plays Torvald with a sensual swagger and a fussiness that puts him in the modern world and the stuffy world when the play was written. This Torvald is driven by sex—he can hardly wait to get his clothes off and ‘enjoy’ his wife after a party. Morris illuminates the self-centred, possessive attitude Torvald has towards Nora.

The best performance is Damien Atkins as Nils Krogstad. This is a desperate character, anxious to get his reputation back. He is at the end of his rope. He has lost his job because Torvald fired him. He will use blackmail to get it back. But Atkins shows the depth of despair that Krogstad is experiencing in his gripping performance. We never discount him because of Atkins’ nuanced, moving performance.

Brooks has characters enter scenes in slow motion for a few steps and then the characters assume a natural way of walking. What is that? In a production full of such directorial ‘stuff’ I can only call it ‘pretension on toast.’

Comment. Ibsen has been called ‘the father of modern drama’ because of that door slamming. Imagine it, woman in 1879 (when the play was first produced in Denmark) having a conversation with her husband that challenges everything about the institution of marriage; of the husband/wife relationship; of marital duty etc. And then deciding to leave that marriage to find out what kind of person she is. In some ways one can imagine modern couples having that conversation too. Ibsen certainly could get into the minds of women and the men they are married to, no matter what the era. A Doll’s House has always been a challenging, intriguing observation of sexual politics, marriage, relationships, equality etc. This production of the play doesn’t come close to exploring any of the issues.

Soulpepper presents:

Opened: July 27, 2016.
Closes: August 27, 2016.
Cast: 9; 4 men, 5 women
Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 simon webb August 11, 2016 at 6:14 pm

…”Brooks has set this in the modern day.” Actually, that was McGuinness – very clear in the text, and in the 1996/7 productions. An error like that doesn’t help your credibility.


2 Brian Stein August 11, 2016 at 10:33 pm

So much of what I have just read here, now, is what I argued with Ken Dawe at intermission. He saw Nora as bi-polar. I saw her as miscast, in way over her head. Ken remained, I’d had enough. I left but I’m too polite to slam a door. One act was more than enough.