Playwright Zinnie Harris could surely not have predicted the exquisite timing of her version of Ibsen’s famous play A Doll’s House.
In setting the Norwegian playwright’s classic in an Edwardian England reeling from a political scandal, she had already provided enough resonances with today’s financial meltdown, but the expenses scandal currently consuming the news adds an extra level of resonance that had last night’s audience laughing when Thomas says “all politicians have to offer the public is trust”.
In Harris’s version, Thomas is a recently promoted politician who has moved into a government-owned house with his wife Nora and their two children. It is the same house recently vacated by Neil Kelman, who lost his home and his position in government after being accused of fraud. Desperate to regain some credibility and save his career, Kelman blackmails Nora into persuading her husband to defend him to the press and parliament.
The plot, therefore, hangs on the reason Nora can be blackmailed: some years ago she borrowed money from Kelman without Thomas’s knowledge – forging a signature in the process – in order that she could pay to take Thomas, who had suffered a breakdown, on a rehabilitating trip to Italy.
But the plot is almost beside the point; it provides a framework for a study of marriage and the role of women in a pre-suffrage era. Gillian Anderson, luminous in a succession of floor-length gowns, plays Nora as a woman used to being perceived as silly and valued only for her physical appearance, but there is clearly more to her than that. As she tells her childhood friend Christine (Tara Fitzgerald), she is proud of the fact she saved her husband’s life and the resourcefulness she has shown in paying back Kelman’s loan. Taking the loan, she says, was “what a man would do”.
Anderson makes Nora thoroughly likeable, showing us a canny side to her that hovers beneath the surface naivety. She obviously plays up to her girlish charms in the presence of Thomas (Toby Stephens), knowing his physical desire for her is the basis of their relationship. Patronising and domineering, Thomas treats Nora as his play thing, his “mouse”, someone to be protected and provided for.
Kfir Yefet’s production is played out entirely in the house’s library, designed by Anthony Ward, where empty bookshelves line the walls and half-opened packing crates show a family not yet settled in their new home. As the plot progresses, Nora cowers from Kelman’s (Christopher Eccleston) fury in the room, and receives Dr Rank (Anton Lesser), her dying friend who gives her an escape route from her situation that, admirably, she does not take.
Unlike Thomas, both Dr Rank and Kelman see that there is more to Nora than a pretty face, and, indeed, less to Thomas than the importance he bestows upon himself.
A Doll’s House is also about love. Christine, the drably-dressed, penniless widow who married for money, believes in it. Kelman, after raging against Nora with an imposing physicality, is softened by it. But where love should be – in a marriage which has borne two young children – there is only its image. In making her final, famous, decision, Nora shatters the illusion for good. The tragedy is that the strong, decisive, independent woman who emerges does not consider herself a good enough role model for her children.