The sal tree at the centre of Lily Arnold’s stone-washed quad reaches to a dizzying height. Your eye is immediately drawn to it, to the way its slim grey trunk arcs up and up, leaves peering through a skylight. Is the foliage covering up the gape or attempting to escape through it? Then, Niru’s (Anjana Vasan) laugh tinkles down below, the sound trilling off the courtyard’s cold corners. It’s a beautiful space, but chilly. More of a museum than a home.
Tanika Gupta’s new adaptation, directed by Rachel O’Riordan in her inaugural production at the Lyric, is set in 1879 (the year Ibsen originally wrote A Doll’s House), but transposed to Calcutta, just as British imperialism reaches its crest. Queen Victoria has just been named Empress of India by Disraeli. White men have muttonchops. Nora is now Niru, a young Indian woman married eight years to Elliot Cowan’s Tom Helmer, who finds herself twisted up in a web of debt to Assad Zaman’s desperate Das (aka Krogstad). It’s an ingenious update by Gupta – deepening and complexifying every inch of Ibsen’s original. Sexism is beget by racism is beget by classism is beget by sexism again. Through a postcolonial lens, the play becomes a whirling, inescapable funhouse of micro and macroaggressions.
No offence, but as soon as Tom comes onstage, I fucking hate him. My hackles rise as he bounces Niru on his lap. I bristle as he towers over her, cages her in his embraces, tilts her chin up with the tip of his finger to kiss her, mimics her accent, curls his mouth around the words “my Indian princess.” He likes her to wear saris. His fixation on her dance becomes an odious exotification. He’s the type of white guy who thinks that his sexual attraction to a brown woman absolves him of racism and it’s an acutely observed performance from Cowan. But he’s not a pantomime villain, even if I do bare my teeth at him whenever he comes onstage – no, he’s far more insidious. Gupta presents him as a liberal-leaning imperialist, agreeing (up to a point) with Dr Rank’s criticisms of the British occupation of India. The kind of man who believes that the English are helping India. The kind of man who values civilised behaviour above all else, without realising (or caring) that he and his ilk decide what counts as “civilised.” The kind of man who papers over virulent racism, classism, and sexism with cut-glass vocals and a charming smile and the genuine belief that he is on the right side of (Western) history. In Gupta’s adaptation, Das is more sympathetic than ever before in comparison – yes, he’s a blackmailer, but a desperate one, crushed underfoot by the ravages of colonialism. Colin Tierney’s Dr Rank fares a little better, coming across as genuinely concerned with the damage the English have wrought over India, though he still edges into paternal patronisation. To be (f)rank, they can both do one.
Because it’s Anjana Vasan’s show through and through. She flutters through the courtyard, bare hands and feet smacking on stone like a bird that’s flown inside and can’t get out again. She presses her back flat against the walls and her feet twist into tiptoes, like she’s trying to levitate. When she wears bells on her ankles to dance, they read as shackles. In early scenes, she willingly folds her tiny body into Cowan’s towering frame, lets him smack her on the backside and wrist, her laugh sugary sweet. She playfully slips away from him, but never allows herself to be fully out of his grasp. She has a modicum of power over him, but if she wins the small battles, then he’s won the entire war.
What is perhaps most painful to see is her internalised racism and sexism. Upon seeing Tripti Tripuraneni’s peaceful, dependable Mrs Lahiri for the first time since childhood, she remarks flippantly, “You’re darker.” Vasan leans into Niru’s casual cruelty in those earlier scenes, into her relish in wielding what small power she has over others, before the plot really begins to unfurl. When Das rails at Niru, spitting, “The English really have given you airs and graces, haven’t they? You marry a white man and you think you are one of them,” he strikes a nerve. You can see the thought take hold in her face, before she instinctively bats it away. But it holds on, folding into her body like a banana tree seed, blooming against her will. When, in that final tirade, Tom calls Niru a savage, tells her that it was “against nature to take you into my home”, Vasan’s body weirdly, incrementally, starts to relax. Her shoulders go down, her gaze becomes steady, her chin rises. It’s a brilliant choice. She slips into mirroring Mrs Lahiri’s tranquil sturdiness, the kind which only comes with absolute mental clarity, with being able to see clearly for the first time. It’s a gloriously expansive, utterly generous performance.
I’ve always found Ibsen to be slightly arms-length – he’s the watchmaker of playwrights, winding every play up exactly, everything specific, nothing extraneous, each plot point slotting perfectly into the other. I can admire his craft, but I can’t ever fully give myself over to him, not when everything feels so premeditated, so precise. Gupta and O’Riordan loosen him up – sometimes, it must be admitted, to the detriment of pacing – but it feels so full-bodied, so fresh and clear in intent, that it just doesn’t matter. It’s not perfect – the placement of an interval after the first act instead of the second spins the play out of orbit and the 85-minute-long second half creeps when it should be gathering momentum. But regardless, by the penultimate scene, the audience are gasping and whooping and applauding all over the place. Maybe that’s just a boozed-up press night audience, but I hope it’s not. It’s how people should be responding. This is Ibsen as crowd-pleaser, and why the hell not?
There’s a moment in the third act where Tom picks Niru up and swings her off her feet like a rag doll. She stops right at the edge of the stage, teetering on her toes, eyes wide and searching. For a second, just a second, it looks like she’s going to burst right out of the frame.
A Doll’s House is on at the Lyric Hammersmith till 5th October. More info here.