Jeremy Malies in west London
12th September 2019
Two productions of A Doll’s House in a month (the second a youth production while on holiday) and no hint of a slammed door in either. At the Lyric Hammersmith, adaptor Tanika Gupta has kept Ibsen’s date of 1879 but transported the action from Scandinavia to Calcutta (Kolkata) and the mansion of a white British colonial civil servant at the height of the Raj.
Anjana Vasan and Elliot Cowan. Photo credit: Helen Maybanks.
It’s an inspired move that broadens the themes while remaining true to Ibsen’s overall intentions and message. Nora has become Niru, a Bengali woman played by Anjana Vasan in a mixed ethnicity marriage to the character we usually know as Torvald, here renamed Tom and played by Elliot Cowan. The overarching parallels are obvious but never clunky; India has come under British rule and Niru has not only surrendered to Tom’s courtship but converted to Christianity. Intelligent and vivacious, she cedes to Tom’s demand that she should always wear a sari, does not bridle once at demeaning pet names such as ‘skylark’ or detect any irony in her children (unseen in this version) being called Peter and Bob.
Cowan finds light and shade in a character who is liberal by the standards of the day. He has infantilized his supposed soulmate into something as saccharine and exotic as the sweets she sneaks into the house from the bazaar. Mutterings in the interval at press night suggested that many found him unredeemably loathsome but he reminded me of the tortured central character in Orwell’s early novel Burmese Days who is observant, receptive to local customs and always testing his own preconceptions. And yet at the finale I agreed that Tom is repellent if not beyond recall as his sole focus when the blackmail plot comes to nothing is that his reputation has remained intact.
Rachel O’Riordan’s pacey direction is uncluttered with the action remaining fluid and much of her blocking resembling a dance. Keeping the children off stage contributes to the general momentum but in no way diminishes the enormity of Niru’s departure. There is cinematic detail in the care that O’Riordan lavishes on minor characters and moments of non-verbal communication but she is always alive to Ibsen’s trademark analysis of broad developments in society as well as individual destinies.
Elliot Cowan Anjana Vasan. Photo credit: Helen Maybanks.
Vasan is luminous, elfin (this emphasizes the idea that she is a possession and almost a literal trophy wife) and can become amorphous as she dances, invokes her ancestors and meditates. But there is an early hint of steel in her makeup that is developed subtly as we learn that she has forged her father’s signature in order to borrow money with which she has safeguarded Tom’s health.
Of course, the dialogue has been changed radically but in terms of a complete interpolation, the only scene that has no equivalent in the original is Gupta’s wonderful dialectical exchange between Tom and the pro-Indian Dr Rank (Colin Tierney) about the heyday of empire. Rank foresees the Indian Home Rule movement while dismissing the Raj as misguided, largely predatory, certainly not benevolent and a source of shame for anybody who can empathize with the locals. It’s essentially the same postcolonial lens of any modern mainstream historian. Tierney excels in this scene and elsewhere he can be at turns melancholy, tender and even sinister as he ties bells around Niru’s ankles prior to her Kathak dance which replaces Nora’s signature tarantella.
Designer Lily Arnold hits upon the idea of showing us only the courtyard of Tom’s house meaning there are no set changes but we imagine the other rooms as characters are constantly appearing from them. Kevin Treacy’s warm burnished lighting features multiple shades of ochre that hint at the clay basin around the city as well as its spice trade. British-Asian jazz composer and clarinetist Arun Ghosh (born in Kolkata) plays his own music on multiple Indian instruments from the courtyard veranda in the Baul tradition consistent with the period. He occasionally disappears and adopts a mildly conspiratorial manner suggesting that he may have a role in domestic intrigue among the servants.
As Niru leaves the house the door remains ajar in every sense and the climax is not the usual unequivocal feminist declaration. In a change from the text as written, it is hinted that there may be life in the marriage yet if the dynamic can be equalized, and Tom may go through the same door to discover both West Bengal and himself so giving him the chance of being a better husband.
I first saw Tanika Gupta’s work in 2003 when her acute theatrical intelligence had spotted how Harold Brighouse’s play Hobson’s Choice with its theme of arranged marriage could be left in its original location of Greater Manchester but brought forward a hundred years with the characters now coming from the city’s Indian community. Gupta has found another robust, timeless piece to adapt and A Doll’s House is an outstanding start to O’Riordan’s tenure as artistic chief at the Lyric. It suggests that we can expect much innovative work at the venue under her overall leadership as well as reminding us that she is a fine director.