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
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
And with that political
element now in the play, Niru's
departure from Helmer's home takes on almost allegorical
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
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
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
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.
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.)
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Review - A Doll's House - Lyric Hammersmith Theatre 2019