A Doll House

Judith Roddy and Pauline Hutton in Pan Pan's production of Ibsen's 'A Doll House'. Photo: Ros Kavanagh

Judith Roddy and Pauline Hutton in Pan Pan's production of Ibsen's 'A Doll House'. Photo: Ros Kavanagh

Judith Roddy and Aine Ní Mhuirí in Pan Pan's production of Ibsen's 'A Doll House'. Photo: Ros Kavanagh

Judith Roddy and Aine Ní Mhuirí in Pan Pan's production of Ibsen's 'A Doll House'. Photo: Ros Kavanagh

Dermot Magennis and Judith Roddy in Pan Pan's production of Ibsen's 'A Doll House'. Photo: Ros Kavanagh

Dermot Magennis and Judith Roddy in Pan Pan's production of Ibsen's 'A Doll House'. Photo: Ros Kavanagh

No, it’s not a typo. Adaptor/director Gavin Quinn explains in the programme notes for Pan Pan Theatre’s production that he purposely omitted the customary possessive in this translation of the title of Ibsen’s 1879 humanist drama. The doll doesn’t own the house, after all. No: flighty, borderline hysterical Nora Helmer (Judith Roddy) doesn’t own anything, or at least appears not to, as she lives by the wallet of her husband Torvald (Dermot Magennis), recently promoted to manager of the bank where he works with childhood friend Krogstad (Charlie Bonner) who has, unbeknownst to Torvald, loaned Nora a substantial sum of money off the books. Nora lives beyond her means and both in debt and in thrall, not least of all because she has forged her late father’s signature on the loan documentation, and when she arranges for her old friend Christine (Pauline Hutton) to get a job at Torvald’s bank at Krogstad’s expense, the latter intends to either have his job back or have revenge on Nora’s and Torvald’s reputations. 

This is all just plot, of course. Pan Pan Theatre’s production boasts the tagline “we are first and foremost human beings”, and the one thing Nora actually does own is her self. The problem is that she hasn’t realised this yet, kept as she has been in the shadow of father and husband like the titular doll and thereby that which is owned, not one in ownership of anything, even her person. This play is about her exit from the doll house by abandoning fantasies of Christmas miracles and social graces and focusing on the value of a human life as a life in itself.

This is a clear-eyed, engrossing production: muscular and playful, abstract and direct. It comes with a kind of chorus/narrator in the form of Áine Ní Mhuirí, assuming the voice of critical interpretation and textual analysis in between Acts. She helpfully explains the function of the theme of death and the symbolism of disease, points out how Nora’s final speech summarises the entire play, and consistently reminds us of the intellectual frame like an annotated playscript while also doubling as the servants and children and other minor roles. The production is full of metatheatrical devices like this, including cardboard cut-outs of the cast which begin with their backs to the audience, but are moved around, and occasional (rather wonderful) explosions of song (from Christmas tunes to Les Misérables to The Carpenters). There is also an aesthetically particular performance style emphasising a rigid, almost mechanoid stillness and gestural specificity (all of which disintegrates in Nora’s wild tarantella, of course) that create a degree of avant-garde distanciation. Passages of Nora’s dialogue sometimes disintegrate into piercing wails and screams, then snap back into the standard register of delivery with all the nuances of barely contained hysteria and paradox that inform her character. Roddy also breaks into rhythmic repetition at one point, her head tick-tocking from left to right like a broken doll as she speaks the same lines over and over and over.

And yet amid all these (and many other) purposeful surprises (it wouldn’t be fair to mention more, but I will say that it’s not every day you hear Batman say “Excuse me, I have to go to the jacks”) there is also a very clear, very human, very moving rendering of the text here. The production goes right to the heart of these characters without really paying all that much attention to their world in naturalist staging terms. The abstraction of the Helmer household on a set decorated only with the cut-outs and a vaguely Bacon-esque painting, the metatheatrics of having the cast play a Christmas tree then bringing in a real tree – all of these serve a function, yes, but not to serve literalist ends. The setting is Ireland in the present, but we’re not really talking recession here, not unless we want to.

The production is directed to its humanist values, defying even the standard proto-feminist reading by making us care about each of these characters and not seeing anyone of any sex or social station as a villain. Bonner brings sympathy and menace to Krogstad with a strikingly minimal range of expression, and Hutton’s Christine is a cheerful agent of change rather than a mercenary foreshadowing of Nora’s fate as someone who has already left her former life in search of another. Daniel Reardon gets to execute some lovely surprises of his own as Dr. Rank, and Roddy and Magennis deliver powerfully empathetic characterisations of these people even as they execute the avant-garde stylisations, particularly in the last scene. Throughout the production Aedín Cosgrove’s lights snap from red to violet to orange as if mechanically tripped by lines of speech, but in the play’s final, moving scene as Roddy and Magennis lie posed on the floor, barely illuminated by spotlights that emphasise their distance and their separateness, Ibsen’s words are heard very clearly indeed. The production has always been sincere and respectful with the text, and it becomes obvious here just how much so as we are genuinely engrossed and moved hearing Nora’s rationalisations, and even Torvald’s pleadings, and not thinking of them as trope.

Pan Pan have found a way through the layers of analysis, politics, history, and accrued learning and invigorated the human heart of this play. Bravo.

Harvey O'Brien

  • Review
  • Theatre

A Doll House by Henrik Ibsen

10 April – 28 April, 2012

Produced by Pan Pan Theatre
In Smock Alley Theatre

Directed by Gavin Quinn

Set and Lighting Design: Aedín Cosgrove

Costumes: Bruno Schwengl

With: Judith Roddy, Dermot Magennis, Charlie Bonner, Pauline Hutton, Daniel Reardon, Áine Ní Mhuirí