Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre presents a contemporary take on Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House
Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen premiered A Doll’s House in 1879. The play, which explores a complex moral crisis of a female protagonist, was progressive for its day and surprisingly feminist (though Ibsen himself eschewed that label). But what happens when a play that’s so critical of the patriarchy and rigid societal structures of the 19th century gets transposed to a contemporary setting? The result in director Daniel Brooks’ production for Soulpepper is surprising, searing and thought-provoking.
The central intrigue to the plot is as compelling as ever: Nora Helmer (Katherine Gauthier) is a housewife, married to newly-promoted bank manager Torvald (Christopher Morris). At one time she forged her father’s signature to secure a loan from a loan shark, Krogstad (Damien Atkins), to help Torvald recover from an illness. Krogstad now threatens to expose her crime and publicly ruin Torvald and she becomes increasingly desperate to hide her crime from her husband in order to uphold his good name.
This is the first production of A Doll’s House that I’ve seen set in present day. The action takes place in a stark, white room with a mismatched mix of modern furniture haphazardly strewn about it, representing the Helmers’ home. When the actors first started to speak, I thought the dialogue came off sounding a bit odd; the characters speak in a naturalistic style that people use today even though the dialogue is from a classic script and sounds distinctly period-specific. However, once that convention was established the dialogue did start to sound more natural.
However, the really surprising aspect of this production for me was how the staging of a classic script in a contemporary context completely changed the meaning of the play and affected how I perceived the characters.
In more traditional, period stagings of the play, I’ve always read the characters of Nora and Torvald as sympathetic throughout. Nora is a woman who struggles with the consequences of her actions while navigating a patriarchal society that leaves her little room to manoeuvre. Torvald is a bit of a male-chauvinist to be certain, but not uncommonly so for his time; you believe he truly loves his wife and takes cares of her according to gender roles of his time.
Bringing these characters into a contemporary setting makes their dynamic incredibly problematic.
In this production, Torvald reads as a blatantly sexist, douchebag finance-bro. The way he speaks to his wife is maddeningly condescending; he infantilizes her and treats her as his property. For her part, Nora comes across as a Barbie-doll trophy wife who too easily spends her husband’s cash. The characterization is glaringly anti-feminist and as a result I had a lot of difficulty sympathizing with her.
I also thought it was an incredible stroke of colour-conscious casting to have Oyin Oladejo, a Black actor, playing Kristine Linde, Nora’s much less well-off childhood friend. Their initial interaction in which Nora boasts about how easy and pleasant her life is highlights Nora’s utter obliviousness to her white privilege, which goes hand-in-hand with her unwitting perpetuation of sexist traditional gender roles.
Even though I found myself disliking Nora and Torvald throughout this production, their characterizations set up an impactful delivery of the play’s third act. In a contemporary context, Torvald’s toxic masculinity can only read as abusive, and it’s certainly hinted at in this staging, so when Nora finally wakes and comes into her own the payoff is so much more satisfying.
Katherine Gauthier delivers a powerhouse performance as Nora. On stage for almost the entire play, her physical transformation as Nora’s desperation increases and the character comes apart is astounding.
In the end, I thought Soulpepper’s production of A Doll’s House was surprising and challenging. Go and see this classic play in a fascinating new light.
- A Doll’s House is playing through August 27, 2016 at the Young Centre for the Arts, 50 Tank House Lane, in the Distillery Historic District, Toronto.
- Tickets $32 – $96 (plus service charge);
- Tickets are available in person at the venue box office, by phone at 416-866-8666 or online at soulpepper.ca.
Photo of Diego Matamoros, Christopher Morris, Katherine Gauthier, and Oyin Oladejo by Cylla von Tiedemann