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The Theatreguide.London Review

A Doll's House
Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith    Autumn 2019

When a classic play is adapted in a way that transports it to a new setting – say, from Norway to India – three questions immediately arise.

Does the new setting illuminate the play in fresh and insightful ways? Or does looking through the filter of the play tell us more about the new setting? And above all, does the adapted play work on its own terms? Is it good theatre?

Tanika Gupta does indeed move Ibsen's A Doll's House from nineteenth-century Norway to nineteenth-century India. And the inevitable racial and colonial overtones the play takes on do bring some of Ibsen's themes and characterisations into new focus.

Whether Ibsen's play tells us much about India is a little less certain, but there is no question that, at least in Rachel O'Riordan's sharply pointed production, the Ibsen-Gupta creation is an exciting and involving evening's theatre.

Quick reminder: in Ibsen's original, Nora is the childlike trophy wife of stuffy and conventional Helmer, who treats her like a child or a pretty toy. She is happy in that role, but when circumstances force both of them to see that there is more to her than that, he fails the test, and she concludes that the only way to discover just who she actually is is away from him.

The play ends with the single most famous sound effect in all of world drama, an offstage door closing behind Nora as she leaves.

In Gupta's version Helmer and family friend Rank are British civil servants in Calcutta and Nora has become Niru, Helmer's Indian wife. Instantly and inescapably the play becomes coloured by overtones of both racism and colonialism.

Helmer's patronising and protective attitude toward Niru is at least in part the White Man's Burden to look after the lesser races, and Niru's enjoyment of her role has the feel of the conquered's acceptance of the conqueror's values.

And with that political element now in the play, Niru's departure from Helmer's home takes on almost allegorical significance.

Ibsen's play was not about race or colonialism, but it was implicitly political in challenging assumptions about marriage and gender roles, and if the Indian setting partially deflects attention to new topics, it does make the political side of the original unignorable.

But most important, the adaptation works. A play about an Indian woman discovering that she can't play the role her English husband cast her in is just as engrossing as one about a Norwegian woman outgrowing her Norwegian husband.

Perhaps because the added racial element gives her more to work with, Anjana Vasan is more successful than most Noras I've seen in making believable and attractive the character's contentment with her limited role in the early scenes.

She also gives us early hints of there being more to her than the toy wife as she skilfully flirts and uses her sexuality to manipulate her husband.

Vasan is a little less successful in capturing Niru's panic as a dark secret threatens to come out, though she regains control in the final scene as the woman realises and bravely accepts what she is going to have to do to move on.

The change in setting also helps Elliot Cowan find depth and dimensions to Helmer, as his attitude toward his wife is not just blind sexism but the way he has been trained to think of Indians.

And he and director O'Riordan realise what too few Helmers do – that the final scene is about him almost as much as Niru – so that his agonising attempt to absorb an overload of new realities inspires our sympathy rather than disdain.

(Oh, and that slamming door? Unless there was just a glitch on Press Night they've chosen to omit it. And it is missed.)

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  A Doll's House - Lyric Hammersmith Theatre 2019