There’s a lot of space in The Space. There’s a lot of vertical space in its stripped and emptied rafters, the shell of an old church, and there’s a lot of floor space. Five actors sat scattered in the sorta-traverse layout feel terribly far apart from one another, and when they pass across the stage to deliver letters to one another, to drop in to the house of Nora and Torvald or deliver a message of hope or doom it takes a long time.
There’s a lot of space in Chloe Mashiter’s fine and surprising revival too, her Doll’s House eschews the claustrophobic or the stuffy, as surely and certainly as it rejects the more worn and weary symbols of Ibsen’s great play. This is aDoll’s House of carefully calibrated ideas and performances less concerned with naturalism or hectoring than with an often cold and careful meditation on the characters of Ibsen’s piece and their relations to each other in all of this space.
Mashiter’s cast is led by the superb Greta Gould, whose child-like-ness only ever feels the result of relentless projections. Her love for Torvald seems heavily mediated by the opinions and expectations of others, leaving only one hard and solid core of true adoration, that wonderful thing which she has waited so long for and which is eventually, terribly dashed.
Johan Hallstrom gives a restrained and detestable Torvald, only breaking into any semblance of passion when tanked up with champagne and randy as a goat. His final scene with Nora is particularly well managed, as even his most desperate attempts to feel, think or speak with a level of true emotional engagement falter and fade.
But truthfully it’s a uniformly excellent cast, and whether intentionally or through necessity, a certain amount of roughness and hesitancy in the dialogue only adds to the production’s conviction in blowing off the dust and seeking the universal power and emotional dynamics which are the play’s true engine. It’s reflected in the design too, with Grace Smart’s set and costume refusing to be tied to any particular period or even a unifying concept. Lighting from Tom Webber suggests the inner workings of a smartphone or the menacing alerts from a pager, but these too are only suggestions.
Mashiter’s masterstroke arrives late, in her management of the final scene and a springing of a trap laid in the first. Torvald has spent much of the play consulting a plastic folder, stating that it’s ‘hard business’ but occasionally reading from it as if it were his actual script. When at the end of things Nora goes to take her leave and slam the door, instead Torvald reaches out into the lobby of the Space and drags her back. Pulling her across all those metres of bare floor to rest where the church’s alter presumably once sat, he forces her to enact the dreaded alternate ending Ibsen was coerced into writing for the play’s German premiere, in which Nora crumbles at the sight of her children and her liberation is thwarted. Here, as Torvald closes on actual violence for the first time (presumably the first time in his doll-marriage too) Nora resists and escapes, and the door comes to rest as Torvald rips away at that final hard-bled page of script.
This is not simply a smart way of both having and eating cake, it casts some difficult and impressive questions on the nature, perhaps even the hypocrisy, of this play, so often regarded as a classic of female emancipation, being written by a man, who has forced generations of actors to speak his words and make their escape from the stage on his own terms.The script itself, with its potential for extra pages, hidden pages, plot twists and the like is itself the hard business which Nora is denied access to and control of.
Nora’s final rejection of the new ending is scarcely a rejection or attack on Ibsen, who after all despised and regretted it bitterly, but like so much in this bold and seriously smart new version, it speaks of a director and a company actively engaged in finding those unexplored spaces, those pockets of fresh air and ideas, that can still be unearthed in such a well-trodden play.