Lloyd Evans

Playing Ibsen for laughs

A Doll&rsquo;s House<br /> Donmar The Observer <br /> Cottesloe

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A Doll’s House


The Observer


Amazing guy, Ibsen. Still scribbling away at the age of 181, the Norwegian genius has teamed up with under-rated Spooks writer Zinnie Harris to create a new version of A Doll’s House. They’ve shifted the setting from 19th-century Norway to London in 1909 and promoted Thomas from the provincial bourgeoisie to parliament. Odd choice. Putting the play at the heart of the British Empire adds not one ounce of dramatic weight, and if Thomas is a leading democratic statesman his unworldly Puritanism seems bizarre and incredible.

The good news is that Harris has helped her co-author discover a knack for comedy he never showed as a solo writer. Numerous ribald Ibsenities have been restored to the script. ‘I’ve got your husband by the testicles,’ snarls Nora’s blackmailer. There are lots of decent jokes in this rewrite but comedy damages the tone and undermines the gradual accretion of suspense and horror that should propel the drama to its final cataclysm. The top-drawer cast have been highly praised by the critics albeit in that strain of vague approbation we use when we baulk at telling the unhappy truth.

Who’s good? Christopher Eccleston has hysterics twice and throws the furniture around. Lots of rage, not much range. Gillian Anderson’s Nora has the stillness and golden autumn beauty of Meryl Streep but there’s a reticence about her, a coolness, a Prozac glaze, which discourages one from leaping up and yelling ‘Yes!!’ when she thumps the door shut on Toby Stephens’s Thomas. Stephens is a bluff, uncomplicated and enormously handsome actor who was born to play comedy bounders. He does the cad wonderfully. He never walks. He sways aggressively forward, halts suddenly, tosses back his head and cocks his chin. Sometimes he snorts through his moustache to express contempt. ‘Hrrunnmmph!’ And is that a sneer coming? Yes, northward curls one half of that sensuous upper lip. And he’s good at being agitated. He thrusts a hand deep into his pocket and waggles his fingers so that you can see them waggling through the fabric. This suitcase of gestures would be perfect for a repertory farce but the Ibsen–Harris team haven’t supplied the correct lines for his performance and he seems miscast as the humourless rotter.

Anton Lesser, playing a tuberculosis specialist dying of tuberculosis, struggles to break out of the mannered stiffness of his costume and gives the impression he’s auditioning for the lead role in the Robert Hardy biopic. The best actor, Tara Fitzgerald, traces with unshowy clarity her character’s ascent from mousy reject to romantic saviour. This is a very weird disappointment. Ibsen’s howl of protest against marriage should shock and overwhelm us. Doing it as a yummy mummy romcom with a bitter-sweet ending is a blunder. It was utterly surreal to hear titters of laughter throughout. I only hope Ibsen’s next project, The Master Builder set in the Crossrail tunnel, fares better. 

The National’s latest play is an earnest, shouty bore about election monitors in Africa. Author Matt Charman doesn’t merely ignore the first law of playwriting, he doesn’t know it exists. The rule is to disclose within ten minutes what the main character is after. He makes us wait 65 minutes. Too late. Forget it. You’ve lost us. The first act is incredibly boring, the second act simply incredible. We’re asked to believe that a TV journalist offered a huge scoop would announce his intention to fly home. The ousted dictator wants a free pardon so he asks one of the voting monitors to guarantee it. And it’s suggested that the entire system of international electoral scrutiny is secretly controlled by the Foreign Office. How embarrassing that the National has swallowed this naïve twaddle and put it on stage. Poor Anna Chancellor. Her luminous stage presence is completely wasted in this wet rag of a role. Could the whole thing be an elaborate hoax designed to expose the National’s cretinously weak grasp of both politics and drama? If so, it’s brilliant.