BWW Review: A DOLL'S HOUSE, Lyric Hammersmith
The simple act of deception that opens Ibsen's A Doll's House never ceases to amaze me. A housewife enters, laden with bags from a recent shopping trip, and pops a sweetie in her mouth. Her husband calls, playfully asking if she visited the confectioners whilst in town. Of course not, the wife replies, licking her lips. If she can lie about something so simple as a delectable treat, what else is she hiding?
Ibsen's play explores relationships and how marriage restricted women in the 19th century. Yet to open her first season as Artistic Director of the Lyric Hammersmith, director Rachel O'Riordan has programmed an adaptation of the classic by writer Tanika Gupta. In this refreshed work, Gupta sets the play in Calcutta, 1879 (the same date as the original), and Ibsen's Nora has become Niru (Anjana Vasan), married to Tom Helmer (Elliot Cowan), an Englishman.
When Tom was previously ill, Niru took out a private loan to support her family, counterfeiting her father's signature to secure the money. When one of Tom's employees Kaushik (Assad Zaman) risks losing his job, he threatens Niru with exposing her actions to her husband.
With the simple change in setting to A Doll's House, Gupta examines Ibsen's exploration of what it means to own someone through a colonial lens. This relocation works incredibly well: Tom's definition of Niru as "a little exotic pet" becomes layered with a discomforting master-slave dynamic, and the few details that emerge during the play about their marriage - that he insists she wear a sari and that she continues her dancing lessons - furthers this sense of oriental fetishisation.
Lily Arnold's set design neatly captures the tone of Gupta's adaptation. Instead of the living room meticulously detailed by Ibsen, here is a courtyard with passages leading off to different rooms in the house. It is a space without furnishings and dominated by a tall tree that goes up right into a hole in the ceiling and a large door. Arun Ghost also provides live music, which claustrophobically stays in the lower registers throughout.
The tree, a giver of life, offers Niru a model of how to break through the metaphorical glass ceiling. At the bottom of the tree are three sweet bags, a reminder of the slight act of rebellion that opens the play. It is as if Niru's own free will is just sprouting and about to grow into a ladder to help her escape the patriarchal and colonial bonds that hold her down.
Vassan imbues the role of Niru with ample strength. Her intense stares, fast talking and coy jokes leave no doubt of Niru's potential to manipulate those around her. Eating the occasional jelly bean is just the beginning of Vassan's wry characterisation, her actions bordering on callousness but never quite spilling into it, her smile saccharine but never sickly.
It's not surprising that Cowan's Tom is in love with this Niru. With the changes made to the play, it is Tom who certainly comes off the worse, his controlling actions and unreasonable accusations towards his "Indian skylark" all the more troubling because of the colonial setting - though Cowan tackles the role with the stiff upper lip one would expect from a gentleman of the period.
Yet this is a lopsided production. The first act, a tight 50 minutes, moves fast, with Niru flirting with Tom and reminiscing with her old friend Mrs Lahiri (Tripti Tripuraneni). At the end of the act, Kaushik has revealed the evidence he has over Niru, and the stage is set for the truth to come out and its aftermath to be felt by all those involved.
The second half, however, lumbers through a series of scenes shared by two actors. The performances themselves are earnest and heartfelt - especially good is Colin Tierney as Dr Rank - but something is clearly missing; dare I say, the spice of life?
Despite this, Gupta's adaptation of A Doll's House revises and reimagines Ibsen's classic in an impressive way. The performances also draw out the comedy of the play, and where some might find Nora cold, Vasan's Niru deserves our admiration. If this signals the type of work to come from the Lyric Hammersmith under O'Riordan, then we too should be licking our lips for what sweet treats are in store.
Photograph credit: Helen Maybanks