A Doll’s House, Progress Theatre

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by Louis Train

A Doll’s House is a popular choice among high school English and drama teachers, who are as likely as not to be masochists: it is a long, dense play filled with subtext, the kind of poignant morsels that students are expected to pick out and examine, as if on their hands and knees groping through the muck of the text for an essay topic.

The problem isn’t that A Doll’s House is simple, or vague; to the contrary, it is so full of pointed double meanings and aha! moments that one feels spoilt for the choice. The challenge, rather, is in finding what it all means together. To some, A Doll’s House is an ahead-of-its time feminist tour de force; for others, it is a dated piece, the oblivious creation of an oblivious man writing through the voice of a woman. There is, frustratingly, ample evidence to support both sides.

Nora is a happy wife and mother with a dangerous secret – she has taken out an illegal loan. When Nora’s lender worries that he may fall on hard times, he turns to Nora for help, and sends her into a spiral of fear and worry that her secret may be exposed and her happy life ruined. Underneath the talk of loans and lies lurk questions of power: Nora’s husband Torvald treats her like a child, calls her his squirrel and his lark, but is clueless to his wife’s secret dealings. Nora knows more than her husband, but she depends on his generosity to run her house and take care of herself. Who has power over whom? Does Nora have any real agency at all, considering she is at the mercy of her husband and her creditor? And, for the hell of it, what does ‘power’ mean, anyway?

There are no clear answers to these questions at the Progress Theatre in Reading, in this robust amateur production, but there is a clear vision: an assertive directorial stance from director-producer Adrian Tang, and some bold choices by leading player Tara O’Connor, as Nora. O’Connor’s Nora is childlike, in her voice and mannerisms; even when she insists, deadly serious, that she has done terrible things and made difficult choices, she comes across as an eleven-year-old making her case as to why she should get to sit with the grown-ups. O’Connor’s Nora squeals with delight at good news and pouts at the bad, and seems happiest when she can play with her children, whom she relates to more as a bigger sister than as a mother. The age play is augmented by a conspicuous casting choice: Chris Pett, who performs Torvald, is considerably older than O’Connor, and speaks flatly, mostly uninflected, as if to draw attention to the contrast between man and child.

My reaction is visceral and intense. I am uncomfortable with the depiction of an adult woman as a child – it feels regressive, insulting, even – but I quickly realise that discomfort is exactly the kind of thing Ibsen’s brand of provocative theatre is meant to bring out in a viewer. In his day and, unfortunately, in ours, women are often infantilised, deprived of learning opportunities, and stripped of agency in the name of care. Torvald cares for Nora, as did her father, but their brand of care has left her helpless and clueless. Moment to moment, scene to scene, Nora’s decisions are her own but from a distance – at a systemic level – there were very few choices to begin with. To be discomfited by such an honest depiction of a societal mechanism is to react honestly to a real societal flaw.

After the curtain call, another audience member remarks that Torvald sort of reminds her of her first husband. It is a loaded, ambiguous statement, and I don’t know how to react, except to nod nervously, uncomfortably.

A Doll’s House runs through 16 March.

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