Adapted by Emily Perkins from Ibsen’s Original | Directed by Colin McColl
Auckland Theatre Company | Maidment Theatre, Auckland | May 2-23
Adapting classical texts such as A Doll’s House is a tricky business. Of course, all English versions of the play are going to be adaptations in some way or another—that’s just the nature of translating something from a foreign language. But honouring Ibsen while completely shifting him into a different time and setting is an incredibly delicate balancing act. The fact that Emily Perkins is able to update it from late 1800s Norway to present day New Zealand so seamlessly is a major accomplishment, despite other elements not carrying over so successfully.
In this modern take, the general outline of the play is much the same, focusing on the married life of Nora (Laurel Devenie) and Theo Helmer (Damien Avery), and how the former’s discrete money borrowing threatens the foundations of her domestic bliss, leading to a personal epiphany regarding who she is. The underlying themes are also intact, exploring the role of a person’s responsibilities to themselves versus their family.
The main differences, then, are most apparent in the structure of the play and the characters. The original three-act structure of A Doll’s House is essentially replaced with a one-act play containing countless scene changes. The beauty of Ibsen’s structure is that it felt immediate and claustrophobic, building carefully towards the famous ending. In this version, the flow of the show is less seamless, and the ending comes off rushed, trading clarity for chaos.
Most of the updated characters work well in the new translation though, feeling quintessentially Kiwi and more immediately relatable. Nora bears the most resemblance to her original counterpart, though there’s a modern sexuality that’s been injected into the text and performance that is fitting. Unfortunately, some rushed character beats, despite Devenie’s valiant efforts, result in a protagonist who doesn’t convincingly take us on the pivotal journey of self-discovery. Instead of watching Nora develop from a doe-eyed housewife into a clear-headed realist, it feels like we’re watching someone go through a nervous breakdown—an engaging performance that carries the show, but fails to connect on a deeper emotional level.
Avery as Theo gets a more layered characterisation in the update. Instead of the obviously condescending patriarchal figure who infantilizes his younger wife, we have a seemingly affable Kiwi nice guy. It’s a far more sympathetic treatment that allows for a bit more complexity in the dynamic between the central couple, and paints their final scene together in a slightly different light.
But it’s the rest of the supporting cast that benefit the most from how they’ve been adapted. Nicola Kawana is particularly strong as Christine; no longer just a plot device as in the original, she’s now a mirror to the men as well as Nora, and perhaps the toughest and most likable of the bunch. While Paul Glover as blackmailing Aidan is still the driving force of drama and unpleasantries in the play, a pathetic loneliness underpins his actions. Peter Elliott’s Gerry is also touching as a close friend who wants to be more and—despite feeling unnecessary—the scenes between him and Devenie are some of the most surprisingly affecting, conveying an unrequited yearning that crosses the line.
I can admire director Colin McColl’s attempts to do a radical take on Ibsen’s classic, but perhaps the major problem with this A Doll’s House is the multitude of incongruous production elements. The lighting and set design by Tony Rabbit is initially captivating, presenting an abstract rather than realistic set, using a pit full of stuffed panda bears as its centerpiece. But, as the play progresses, this representational set becomes a major distraction, interrupting late moments of high drama with misguided comedy. While the concept is a great idea in theory it doesn’t fit with the text or performances particularly well. At heart, both Ibsen’s play and Perkins’s adaptation have a naturalistic streak running through them.
Ibsen’s original ends with Nora closing the door behind her with a bang, an ambiguous but hopeful ending. Perkins’s update ends with a far more uncertain air, replacing the bang with a whimper. Instead of running towards the future, it seems more like she’s running away from the present. But if it’s not the liberating ending we’ve come to expect, it’s one that is tinged with uneasy doubt and appropriate for our contemporary times.
More successful for its differences than its similarities, don’t go to A Doll’s House expecting a faithful adaptation of the text. Instead, taken on its own terms, Perkins has crafted a respectable contemporary drama that offers no easy solutions. It’s unfortunate, then, that the production itself doesn’t always live up to the potential of its script, resulting in a play whose most affecting moments sometimes get lost in translation.