After the brilliance of Gary Owen’s Iphigenia in Splott, arguably the best fringe production of the year, Sherman Cymru is burdened with expectation. How do you follow up the show that brought you awards, heaps of praise and a transfer to the National Theatre in London? If you’re artistic director Rachel O’Riordan, you decide to go bigger and, hopefully, better.
A Doll’s House is certainly bigger. Swapping the intimacy of the studio for the opulence of their main theatre, O’Riordan’s vision for Ibsen’s play is full of majesty. A grand piano sits in the centre of a beautifully decorated stage, a chandelier hangs from the ceiling, and large shelves are adorned with china. But the grandest object of them all (at the start at least) is Nora, a woman who has cultivated the perfect life for herself – a successful husband, two adorable children, and a big house to put them all in. But when it’s revealed that the happiness is all based on a web of lies, Nora’s world begins to close in around her.
Leila Crerar is flawless. Nora Helmer is one of the most influential women in drama, a powerful female character in a world achingly starved of them, and Crerar makes the most of the privilege to play her. Yes, Nora is cunning and astute, but Crerar’s (and O’Riordan’s) interpretation amps up her immature naivety. As her idyllic life closes in on her, Nora’s actions become increasingly erratic and, ultimately, destructive. Her open-mouth laughs are as manic as they are childlike, her panic as uneven as it is controlled.
There is a wonderful chemistry between Crerar and Alex Blake as husband Torvald. The final standoff between husband and wife is stunning. As Nora delivers her coup de grace, Blake is superb in his response. An excellent portrayal of a deliberately one-dimensional character.
Her production of A Doll’s House benefits from a stellar group of actors – Paul McEwan’s boisterous Dr Rank, Robert Vernon’s calculating Krogstad and Kelly Williams’ dignified Kristine – but this play belongs to Lelia Crerar and Rachel O’Riordan. After Sophie Melville’s award-winning turn in Iphigenia…, O’Riordan once again draws a revelatory performance from her lead actress. With this play though, the director also shows her attention to aesthetic and technique, working alongside designer Kenny Miller to create a claustrophobic atmosphere on stage; the tall doors and shelves don’t just stand there – they tower threateningly over Nora, as a reminder of her struggles.
Colour and shade are also important. Nora begins the play in simply shaded outfits – blacks and greys and whites – and never more than one or two colours. As per her role as woman of the house, she is both colourless and one-dimensional. But her last appearance is strikingly different – as she rebels against every role expected of her as a woman, she stands defiant in a stunning dress full of different colours and shades.
Following up Iphigenia in Splott was never going to be easy – but they did it. A Doll’s House is a superb piece of theatre, with an outstanding central performance from Leila Crerar at its heart, one that proves that the Sherman Cymru, with Rachel O’Riordan at the helm, is a force to be reckoned with.