Architecture of Happiness
“You must change your life”
–Rainer Maria Rilke, The Archaic Torso of Apollo
It’s great to be wrong sometimes.
When I reviewed Emily Perkins’ A Doll’s House (in ATC’s production) the first time around, I found fault with the play and production. It seemed to take place in a nowhere land, despite the New Zealand references. The quality of director Katherine McRae’s production has me gob-smacked at my initial evaluation; it feels deeply rooted in a specific time and place, somewhere recognisably New Zealand. Somewhere recognisably us.
For those unfamiliar, A Doll’s House was originally penned by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen and produced in 1879. Heralded as a proto-feminist masterpiece, it presents the fantasy family unit as anything but. Ibsen shone a light on the cracks of the institution of marriage, painting it as something fragile and on the brink of collapse. What Perkins has done is seamlessly move these troubles into the 21st century home of the modern Kiwi.
As a drama, A Doll’s House is a well-oiled machine, revolving around a debt yet to be paid off. A debt owed in secret. A secret the whole play hinges on. It’s an apt plot device, as debts, financial and metaphorical, plague all the characters to some extent. Most importantly, what one owes others versus what one owes oneself.
The cast is flawless, but A Doll’s House lives and dies by its protagonist Nora. And the very first moment we see Sophie Hambleton’s Nora on stage, we can feel she’s a Chekhov’s gun ready to explode. As the wife unaware of her own chains until it’s too late, Hambleton is marvellous. She flits between childlike innocence to calculating anxiety in an instant, her seductivity often at odds with her sweetness. She is a series of juxtapositions positioned uncomfortably at the point of identity crisis.
Simon Leary as neoliberal “nice guy” Theo has all the marks of an ex-high school jock in sheep’s clothing. He’s the perfect husband on paper: handsome, successful and only a wee bit chauvinistic. Leary is charming in the role, careful to hide any insecurity with cockiness.
While Gerry (Peter McCauley), the lecherous old man with a late middle-life crisis and Aidan (Francis Biggs), the hot-tempered dropkick, come off as more pathetic creatures than Theo, they’re also more pitiable, and given sensitive portrayals.
As family friend Christine, Kali Kopae brings a marvellous dignity to a woman many would feel sorry for. A woman whose very own doll’s house has already come crashing down. But she doesn’t want our sympathy, she wants to prove she’s still got fight in her. Kiwi male stoicism has nothing on Kopae’s pathos-inducing toughness.
Perkins is wise not to stack the cards too high against the men in the play though. She is sympathetic to their plight, even when she’s critical of their behaviours. But, regardless of gender, every character is flawed, ready to fend for themselves at any given moment.
Ian Harman’s set is magnificent, resembling the outline of a home, rather than a finished product. It’s a hollow and empty vessel made up of right angles and broken geometric shapes. A perfect interpretation of the play’s tagline: “The House That Lies Built.” More impressive is that it is part of a touring production.
Costumes (also by Harman) hit the bull’s eye, nailing the characters’ archetypes astutely. Theo is a Kiwi fratbro all grown up, his pants running to just above the ankles. Gerry too reeks of a man uncomfortable with old age, dressed with floral patterns, which only seek to emphasise his displaced youth. Nora is all babydoll princess, infantilised in everything she wears. And Chrstine is all dresspants business woman, a telling choice of battle armour. If this sounds on the nose in theory, on stage these outfits are effective signifiers. After all, how the characters choose to present themselves speaks volumes. To quote RuPaul, “We’re born naked, everything else is drag.”
Composer Peter Edge’s score and Marcus McShane’s lighting filter the play through a nostalgic lens, occasionally shifting us from the text’s naturalistic backdrop to Nora’s interior world. Christmas fairy lights are interrupted by film noir shadows. We are constantly reminded not to get too comfortable.
It’s hard not to imagine the ways in which A Doll’s House resonated when it first premiered in Norway. But this adaptation, at its best, soars off the page, and it’s tempting to say, free from the shackles of Ibsen’s cold dead hands. In this version, Perkins also slyly posits that capitalism is the last battlefield for feminism. And while having Nora literally ask the question of what happens after capitalism is lacking subtlety, it’s a bold provocation that opens up a terrifying can of worms.
If Taylor Mac’s Hir presented us with the modern world awry with identity politics, the present in conflict with the future, Perkins’ A Doll House presents us with a present stuck in the past, gasping for air. The two plays would make a terrifying double bill, suggesting the collapse of the traditional family unit is inevitable.
SPOILER ALERT FOR A 140 YEAR OLD PLAY:
The ending of the play is a difficult one. Not just the specific moment Nora chooses to leave her family behind, but the series of moments from when Theo forgives her. She goes from worrying about him leaving her to her leaving him. It’s a sudden turn that could seem messy in lesser hands, but McRae’s direction gives it a purposefully jarring whiplash. This moment is built on Nora having epiphany after epiphany, realisation after realisation, until the truth and choice is too much to bear. A voice echoes inside her. You must change your life.
Like any great piece of art, A Doll’s House asks more questions than it answers. Most urgently, Nora’s final exit opens up massive questions about the price of freedom, and at what and whose expense. It’s not the feminist masterpiece it is often touted as – no it’s a terrifyingly existential one. We are all Nora now.
An immaculate production of a devastating masterpiece.
See also: Matt Baker’s Theatre Scenes review of the original ATC production.
A Doll’s House is currently touring the South Island, finishing its run in Nelson (10th September) and Hamilton (14th September). Nathan attended the Dunedin season at Regent Theatre.