Simon Stephens’ adaptation of Henrick Ibsen’s A Doll’s House demonstrates how the performance of social and gender roles are still as salient today as they were at the time of the play’s first performance in 1879. Nora Helmer (Jasmine Atkins-Smart) is the epitome of a highly strung housewife. Fussing over her kitchen, her neuroses surface in an anxious state of ceaseless tidying, drinking coffee and wine, and re-hanging an already perfectly hung tea towel.
Schoolhouse Productions have transformed the intimate space of the Alma Tavern Theatre into one of intense claustrophobia. The steps next to the audience seating double for stairs in the Helmer home, while the stage itself is a perfect replica of a kitchen, complete with all mod cons. Torvald Helmer (Giles Coram) mostly communicates with his wife by shouting downstairs from the confines of his study, trapping the small audience of only six short rows between his screams from behind and her flitting nervousness below. We are trapped in the home with them, just as Nora herself is trapped in the marriage.
The smalls space also helped to cultivate the audience’s distain towards Nora’s husband. As Torvald delivered his misogynistic one-liners a collective hatred could be palpably felt from the predominantly female audience. His assertion that he finds his wife’s apparent ‘lack of understanding’ and ‘lack of ability’ attractive – since it reminds him he is a man and she is a woman – drew particular consternation.
Nora’s inescapable position of subservience culminates in an alcohol-fuelled Torvald forcing himself upon her. As he asserts that ‘you are my wife’, the darker aspects of their marriage reveal themselves. The addition of this scene reminds us that when the play was first performed marital rape was not illegal and was not made so in Norway until 1971.
To Torvald, his wife is ‘silly little Nora’, always confused and out of her depth. Nora internalises his misogyny; she dismisses herself as ‘silly little Nora’, even in her most profound moments. The change occurs when Torvald discovers Nora’s secret, resulting in her awakening from the repressive patriarchal system that previously defined her. The neurotic fussing of an anxious wife and mother give way to a woman finally comfortable in her own skin. As Nora puts on her coat in the act of leaving her husband and children, this symbolic costume change signifies her both leaving their home and the previous version of herself behind.
Nora’s awakening not only demonstrates the rejection of gender roles, more rigid in the 19th century yet still relevant today, but advocates a challenge to all forms of representation. At the crux of the final scene is a message about the importance of not embodying the roles that others prescribe for you. It emphasises the value of understanding oneself before performing for others.
A Doll’s House is on until 18th March 2017 at the Alma Tavern in Bristol. Click here for more details.