This week at Progress Theatre, Adrian Tang directs Henrik Ibsen’s ‘scandalous-for-its-time’ domestic drama A Doll’s House. Written in 1879, Ibsen’s modern tragedy centres on the role of women in a male-dominated society and the secrets and lies festering in middle class marriages.
We follow Nora Helmer, a young, frivolous but loving wife and mother, who’s often treated like a doll by her husband Torvald. From the outside her family looks perfect: Torvald has just landed a plum job as head of the bank, they attend glamorous parties and they are soon to be free from their previous financial insecurity.
But as Nora’s childhood friend Kristine (Juliania Tiu) arrives looking for a job, the secret of a fraudulent loan Nora took out to save her family emerges. She soon comes under threat from blackmailing moneylender Krogstad (Paul Gallantry) leading her marriage and her composure to crumble.
We’re welcomed into a simple and bright Victorian drawing room, decked in paper chains and a Christmas Tree. It’s homely but suitably austere to be the claustrophobic doll’s house. It’s a space in which Nora feels small and not in control.
Tara O’Connor is energetic as Nora. Completely at ease in the character, we first see her as childlike and immature, giddy over receiving pocket money and sneaking macaroons into the house. But Nora soon reveals a stronger core that she conceals from her husband along with the macaroons. She is shrewd and pragmatic, doing what needs to be done to save her family. By the second half, O’Connor shows Nora growing gradually more agitated with her secrets, anxiety crackling from her every move.
As Torvald, Chris Pett is solid, responsible and proper, underestimating his younger wife, who he thinks of as his ‘little skylark’. Their caring but reserved relationship seems closer to father and daughter than partners, clearly showing us where the power lies.
Mikhail Grozny is relaxed and witty as the exhausted Dr Rank. His unspecified terminal illness is hinted at without ever feeling heavy, but his tender story and relationship with Nora passes too quickly to really sit with us.
Adrian Tang’s direction is bold, creative and touching with occasional silent montages of family life moving around the home. This is intriguing as a standalone scene, but overall leaves the production with somewhat of an imbalanced tone between this enchantment and the otherwise understated drama. The second half rises in energy though, leading us to the exhilarating ending as Nora realises her husband isn’t who she thought and that she needs to put herself first.
Go see Tara O’Connor lead Progress Theatre in a strong production of a story of a woman finding her strength and slamming the door on her past.
A Doll’s House is at Progress Theatre from Monday 11 March until Saturday 16 March. Tickets are £14, buy online.
Hello! I'm Claire, the founding editor of Explore Reading. I'm a Reading native and former digital director of Time Out Shanghai. I founded Explore Reading so no one can say, ‘there’s nothing to do in Reading’, again. When not editing Explore Reading, I'm probably drinking a Manhattan.