Theatre review: The Dollhouse

by **

Dear Dad

The Dollhouse by Daniel Schlusser is as nominally different yet fundamentally synonymous as its title is to Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. While it is adapted to a contemporary context, Schlusser’s production is faithful in form to Ibsen’s play. More importantly, his staging of this 19th century classic holds a mirror up to the society today as the original did to the society then.

Schlusser’s second interpretation — his first was in 2007 — of this Norwegian play traces a woman’s personal journey from subservience to (near-) emancipation; it highlights the societal conventions within which people live and the pressures under which they struggle. Despite more than 130 years after its debut, the play remains startlingly fresh, resonant and disturbing.

Perhaps to emphasise the play’s current relevance, the production opens with the ensemble lounging on the stage. Half dressed or stretching, bantering or warming up, they seem to have brought the backstage into full audience view. As the cast slips easily into their 19th century roles after merely putting on clothes and taking up positions, the audience is persuaded — even if initially baffled — to identify with the characters.

The year is unknown and it is Christmas; Nora Helmer has just come home from shopping for the festive season. As husband Torvald questions her spending damage, Nora harrasses him for more money. But amidst their playful chaffs, they relish the prospect of better finances now that Torvald has a new job at the Macquarie bank.

Kristine, Nora’s friend from high school, arrives at the house, newly widowed, childless and poor. Nora confides that she owes Nils Krogstad money she borrowed for Torvald’s treatment when he fell ill years ago. Because Torvald has not been told about the loan, in her effort to preserve his machismo pride, Nora has been repaying the debt from the housekeeping budget and income from some incognito modelling that she does for Target on the side.

Although the whole production is written in contemporary everyday language and Ibsen’s play has been thoughtfully adjusted to reflect the zeitgeist of the day, Schlusser demonstrates how entrenched some social phenomena remain: male arrogance and masculine dominance both at work and at home and the inextinguishable survival instincts of (to use his phrase) “human animals”.

We see Torvald’s condescending attitude to Kristine when she first seeks a job from him and we witness his implacability to Nora’s demeaning attempts to redeem herself. The narrative tells of how Nora forged her dead father’s signature to save her husband’s life and tells of Krogstad’s intention to blackmail Torvald into reinstating his job and promoting him. Kristine, too, chose to forsake the man who was devoted to her for the sake of an ailing mother and young siblings.

Nevertheless, marital inequality arguably remains the pulsing beat of Ibsen’s play. While Schlusser has chosen to concentrate on the interest surrounding the “restraint and excess” on Nora’s part — not least with the inclusion of Black Swan, the film in which the protagonist bursts out of her inhibitions into intemperance — Torvald’s subjugation of Nora is what demands commentary and reflection.

Set designer Jeminah Reidy’s dollhouse is an uber-modern warehouse conversion replete with boys’ assorted toys: computer games and flat screen TV, Star Wars and iPhones, balls and lego. Still, Tiffany Abbott’s choice of costume for Nora effectively dresses her up like a (barbie) doll while Kimberly Kwa’s lighting and Martin Kay’s sound designs build the atmosphere imperceptibly.

With Producer Sarah Ernst, Schlusser directs a tremendous cast. Kade Greenland is excellent as Torvald who seems, to the end, genuinely confounded in unrepentence while Josh Price is convincing as the terminally ill Dr Rank whose secret love for Nora is stubbornly unrequited. Edwina Wren and Schlusser are also striking in their performance as Kristine and Krogstad, none more so than when they come to rekindle their old passions.

Nonetheless, laurels will have to go to Nikki Shiels who responds to the challenging role of Nora with a high voltage performance. Despite her nurtured frivolity, she embodies all the strength and fragility of the everyday woman.

Finally, as with his title, Schlusser’s Nora is cosmetically different yet fundamentally synonymous to the 19th century playwright’s protagonist.