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A Doll’s House – Ibsen’s protofeminist classic
As a resident West Londoner, the Lyric Hammersmith has long been on my radar, I even worked there as a barmaid whilst studying at drama school! New artistic director Rachel O’Riordan has given the theatre a new lease of life, opening her first season with an assured and vivid production of Ibsen’s protofeminist classic A Doll’s House.
Tanika Gupta’s compelling new adaptation relocates the drama from Ibsen’s Nordic setting to colonial Calcutta in 1879 (the same date as the original), it’s very much influenced by Gupta’s Bengali origins, which were steeped in family stories of the history of Calcutta and the struggle for Indian independence. The show is accompanied by an evocative soundscape from composer and live musician Arun Ghosh.
Ibsen’s Nora is now Niru (Anjana Vasan). We meet Niru lounging in her elegant courtyard, which houses a central tree and a large oak doorway, beautifully designed by Lily Arnold. She is utterly adored by her attentive husband Tom (Elliot Cowan), an English colonial administrator. Vasan is an absolute delight; sparky and deliciously watchable as she totally inhabits the role of Niru with the perfect combination of flightiness and intelligence, whilst Cowan’s portrayal of Tom is suitably self-righteously noble and uptight with just the right amount of swagger.
All appears well in their marriage, a flirty sexual dynamic between the couple creates a vision of harmony, and although Tom tries to teach Niru the value of money he happily gives in to her extravagant whims. He is also controlling, commenting on her dress (he likes her to wear a sari) and reminds her not to eat too much. Slowly the cracks begin to show, made all the more powerful by the underlying tensions of the British colonial expansion.
What unfolds is a very patriarchal mixed marriage with clearly defined roles calling Niru his “little Indian princess”. Tom’s upper-class pomposity leaves him unable to express himself, totally blind to his own prejudice and entitlements. However, Niru, who is caught between cultures, is savvy and cleverly uses her femininity to great effect. She takes more of a contemporary feminist position as the play progresses, perhaps unlikely in the circumstances but the transition enables the play to become a good vehicle for a feminist postcolonial critique.
Lowly clerk Kaushik Das (Assad Zaman), who fears losing his job working for Tom in the tax office, is blackmailing Niru over her having forged her late father’s signature on an IOU. This act threatens Tom’s honour and this among other events plants a seed and gradually the worm turns and she begins to unpick her fragile world.
Other key relationships also play their part, including Niru’s touching friendship with the terminally ill Dr Rank played by an excellent Colin Tierney, a close friend of Tom, who challenges his colonial politics and Niru’s female confidante, the widowed Mrs Lahri (Tripti Tripuraneni).
The second half of A Doll’s House is rather too long and sees Niru finding the strength and resolve to make the very bold and mind-blowing decision to leave her family Tom finally loses his cool and tears into Niru with an emotional tirade. Niru has made the ultimate feminist sacrifice; she’s taken a dive for freedom, breaking free from the colonial, racial and gender straightjacket. A powerful climax challenges social class and raising the important question of what it means to be a woman under different historical circumstances.
The Lyric is back and Rachel O’Riordan’s stylish debut proves she is on a roll.
At Lyric Hammersmith, London, until 5 October
London W6 0QL
Phone: 020 8741 6850