Featured An utterly compelling Doll’s House

An utterly compelling Doll’s House

Christian Olwagen’s production of Ibsen’s enduring drama, A Doll’s House, is driven by a clear directorial vision and performed by a powerful cast.

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Jennifer Steyn performs as Nora Helmer in A Doll’s House, in Grahamstown on 10 July 2015, at the National Arts Festival. The director of the production and the 2015 Standard Bank Young Artist for Theatre, Christiaan Olwagen, presents an adaptation of Hendrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House set in a contemporary setting. (Photo: CuePix/Mia van der Merwe)

It is a tragedy that the play’s main themes are still as relevant today as they were when premiered in Denmark in December 1879. How is it possible that we have learned so little, or that the fundamentals of family relationships have not changed, despite everything that has happened since? But this is no tired or clichéd exploration of the oppression of women in a domestic environment.

Everything about the production is bold, courageous, nuanced, and utterly compelling. It is a strange marriage of the realistic and the bizarre, in which, for example, normal people briefly share the stage with actors in animal masks. It’s a delicate balance, which could so easily have failed, but which is executed with such subtlety and precision that it works extremely well.

It is tempting to single out Jennifer Steyn for her nuanced performance as Nora Helmer, who she portrays as a cutesy yet spunky housewife who loves shopping and dancing. But in the Q&A session after the show, Steyn is quick to say, “Every beat, every breath, every thought, and every choice is offered by a special director with a very specific vision and supported by a genius cast.”

The latter is very apparent. Martin le Maitre, Dawid Minnaar, Anthea Thompson and Rob van Vuuren are all brilliant in their specific roles, and even more so, given how different their individual styles are. Each one of them brings to life a unique combination of strength and vulnerability that seems to be a cornerstone of Olwagen’s directorial vision.

“There are no clear-cut victims,” he says in the Q&A, “It’s life.” Although it is Nora who realises she needs to find herself, every character is lost. Apparently, not only the women need to “run with wolves”, a reference Olwagen repeats a number of times.

Olwagen sets out to portray the cost of our obsession with money and climbing the social ladder. He wants to show how we end up having business arrangements instead of loving relationships. And how, in the process, we all lose our voices. This approach resonates with Ibsen’s insistence that he did not set out to write in the cause of woman’s liberation but rather to describe humanity.

It is not hard to imagine how revolutionary Ibsen’s play was in 1879. If you’re interested, read up about the “German ending” which Ibsen hated so much.

For reasons that will become clear to you, the set is designed to be claustrophobic and yet openended, with many more doors than in the original, which makes Nora’s final actions all the more meaningful.

The choreography and music are perfectly chosen. One minute we have soft lighting and the gentle rhythms of Edvard Grieg’s composition for Ibsen’s Pier Gynt. The next minute, Nora is bouncing off the walls to the beat of Bjork under the pink psychedelic lights.

It may not be the first time you hear these messages or confront these particular demons, but you will not regret going, nor will you forget the experience in a hurry. A Doll’s House is said to be “one of the world’s most performed plays”, so you may be able to see it some other time. But this is not a production you want to miss.

Steve Kromberg
Cue specialist writer

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