What happens when a feminist theatre company takes on a classic feminist play? Miranda Johnson finds out.
A Doll’s House, Tempest Theatre ·
Subiaco Arts Centre, 29 November 2020 ·
A Doll’s House is a quintessential feminist text – albeit one written by a Norwegian man in the late 19th Century.
Henrik Ibsen’s play is well-known to many who studied English literature or drama in high school, who learned the story of Nora, a young woman trapped in a marriage to a man she thinks she loves. Over the course of the text, her attempts to support him, maintain the household and raise her children become increasingly desperate as she finds herself trapped in a web of manipulations, social conventions, legal inequalities and financial control.
It’s perfect material for local outfit Tempest Theatre, a proudly feminist theatre company.
Tempest’s production of A Doll’s House departs from the original play in that it is a solo monologue, stripped back to centre Nora’s thoughts and feelings about her life, marriage and family. It’s adapted and directed by Susie Conte, and the role of Nora is played by Siobhan Dow-Hall, who expertly showcases the range of emotion felt by Nora as her character progresses from carefree wife and mother to a woman burdened by oppression and the increasing realisation that her husband does not love her – but perhaps worse, does not take her seriously.
The adaptation is contextually quite faithful to the original; the set places us in the parlour of a house at Christmas, with the young mother happily stuffing stockings for her children and enjoying the social and domestic lifestyle of a middle-class woman. The set is simple and effective, with the Christmas tree the ultimate symbol of a happy family celebration – and ultimately, of Nora’s rejection of this life as she chooses to leave her husband and children. Each scene occurs just after an important moment in the text, in which Nora receives visitors, news from her friends, or phone calls that reveal that her happy, carefree life is slowly unravelling.
The opening scenes begin evocatively, with the recorded male voiceover referring to Nora in increasingly patronising nicknames (‘my little skylark, little sweet-tooth, pretty little pet…’) echoing through the room and overlapping in sound and intensity, to bring home the casual misogyny of her husband to his wife. While this was an arresting beginning to the play, the use of voiceover during the rest of the scenes became a little confusing, as the characters who were talking were never really introduced, meaning that the audience had to be very familiar with the original text to understand the significance of these characters’ voices.
The use of these voiceovers also made me wonder about the rationale of adapting the text to a monologue when the original text already centres Nora’s voice, as she is the key protagonist. I think that, had these other characters been present in the performance, their power over Nora, manipulation of her emotions, and casual belittling of her thoughts and feelings might have been more shocking and confronting, instead of leaving so much dependent on the imagination or snatched phrases of words.
There are many plays in which female characters are not given their own motives, personalities or interiorities. Such works have the potential to be extremely satisfying, even revelatory, if converted to a monologue form, and so I look forward to seeing where Conte goes next, in terms of centring and reframing female characters. This adaptation of A Doll’s House, however, felt more like it was telling us what Nora thought, rather than showing us the experiences that led to her feeling this way.
The strength of A Doll’s House is that it exposes the power struggles between people. It reveals how our bodies and minds exist in relation to others and to society, and can be manipulated, controlled, and belittled. While Dow-Jones did a fantastic job of embodying Nora’s strength of character in the face of adversity and the depths of her emotion as she grapples with her decision, it felt as though the adversity itself wasn’t entirely present, which ultimately reduced the power of her final rebellion.
A Doll’s House has finished its season at Subiaco Arts Centre but you can read more about Tempest Theatre at https://www.tempest-theatre.com/
Pictured top: Siobhan Dow-Hall as Nora.