October 15, 2019

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Ibsen's message still resonates in his most famous work

Norwegian great's drama continues to pack a wallop, 140 years later

The Torvald family is pictured as a slice of domestic bliss, but the pretty portrait is shattered in the drama's stunning climax. (Dylan Hewlett)

The Torvald family is pictured as a slice of domestic bliss, but the pretty portrait is shattered in the drama's stunning climax. (Dylan Hewlett)

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 1/2/2019 (255 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The opening scenes in Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House painstakingly present a picture of domestic bourgeoisie bliss as experienced in Norway of the late 19th century. It is a rendering of playful love in the family Helmer, headed by patriarch Torvald (Kevin Klassen), an upwardly mobile lawyer and bank manager, his apparently indulged wife Nora (Shannon Taylor), and their three young children.

One could generously attribute Torvald’s attitude toward his wife as a symptom of the sexism of the era. He demonstrates affection, but it is generally expressed in words of precious condescension, such as referring to Nora as a child or a “little squirrel.”

Ultimately, the picture proves to be an elaborate lie, one that sets the audience up to have the rug pulled out from under in a climax that retains its sheer radical power 140 years after the play first premièred.

While A Doll’s House may not be the biggest production in the Master Playwright Festival’s all-Ibsen program — that distinction goes to the upcoming Royal MTC mainstage production of contemporary playwright Lucas Hnath’s speculative sequel A Doll’s House Part 2 — it may still deserve a place as the fest’s flagship show, demonstrating precisely why the Norwegian Ibsen was such an important, game-changing playwright in the first place.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 1/2/2019 (255 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The opening scenes in Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House painstakingly present a picture of domestic bourgeoisie bliss as experienced in Norway of the late 19th century. It is a rendering of playful love in the family Helmer, headed by patriarch Torvald (Kevin Klassen), an upwardly mobile lawyer and bank manager, his apparently indulged wife Nora (Shannon Taylor), and their three young children.

One could generously attribute Torvald’s attitude toward his wife as a symptom of the sexism of the era. He demonstrates affection, but it is generally expressed in words of precious condescension, such as referring to Nora as a child or a "little squirrel."

Ultimately, the picture proves to be an elaborate lie, one that sets the audience up to have the rug pulled out from under in a climax that retains its sheer radical power 140 years after the play first premièred.

While A Doll’s House may not be the biggest production in the Master Playwright Festival’s all-Ibsen program — that distinction goes to the upcoming Royal MTC mainstage production of contemporary playwright Lucas Hnath’s speculative sequel A Doll’s House Part 2 — it may still deserve a place as the fest’s flagship show, demonstrating precisely why the Norwegian Ibsen was such an important, game-changing playwright in the first place.

Nora's (Shannon Taylor) life is changed after a visit from her friend Christine (Toni Reimer), who has some news to share. (Dylan Hewlett)

Nora's (Shannon Taylor) life is changed after a visit from her friend Christine (Toni Reimer), who has some news to share. (Dylan Hewlett)

A spark is destined to set the Torvald family aflame: When she gets a visit from a more worldly childhood friend Christine Linde (Toni Reimer), Nora confesses that years earlier, in a bid to save the life of the ailing Torvald, she took out a private loan from a sketchy lawyer, Nils Krogstad (Cory Wojcik). She has secretly been scrimping and working to pay off the debt.

Unfortunately, as Torvald’s career ascends, he has set his sights on firing Krogstad from the bank, pompously citing his underling’s past moral failings. Krogstad, who still holds Nora’s I.O.U., bearing the forged signature of Nora’s late father, attempts to pressure Nora to change her husband’s mind, promising dark retribution if she fails.

The crisis puts Nora in turmoil. She can’t believe she might face legal jeopardy for her good intentions. (She is as naive as her husband believes her to be.) When Krogstad sends a letter to Torvald exposing her, she recognizes the crisis but holds out the hope that "something wonderful will happen." In the meantime, she distracts Torvald with preparations to dance a tarantella at a fancy dress ball. (It’s a fitting metaphor: The tarantella is a "frenzied" dance once thought to be a cure for a tarantula bite.)

It’s difficult to talk about A Doll’s House without a discussion of its lollapalooza of a third act, especially since its revelations tend to throw the first two acts in sharp relief as an elaborate deception.

Yet even now, one is in awe of how Ibsen subtly makes the case that women constitute a social underclass, delineated in the stories of the family nanny Anne-Marie (Jennifer Lyon), who is forced to abandon her own child to raise young Nora, or Christine’s confession as to the reason she had to abandon her impoverished lover for the sake of supporting her family.

Shannon Taylor and Kevin Klassen command the stage as Nora and Torvald Helmer.  (Dylan Hewlett)

Shannon Taylor and Kevin Klassen command the stage as Nora and Torvald Helmer. (Dylan Hewlett)

Director Rona Waddington keeps it a period story, but embellishes it with a high-tech sheen of screens and projected images (courtesy of lighting designer Hugh Conacher) layered over the homely accoutrements of the Helmer home. The resulting anachronistic clash raises the question: Might it not have been better to set the whole play in a modern setting? Given the current neo-conservative state of affairs these days, it wouldn’t be a stretch.

Anyway, the tech feels a bit of an unnecessary distraction more than augmentation, given the strength of the actors. Klassen is a fine Torvald, whose mask of indulgent benevolence proves to be paper-thin. Reimer also distinguishes herself playing Kristine as a wised-up foil to Nora’s sheltered heroine.

But ultimately, Taylor commands the stage, gently but firmly adding layers of complexity to a character on the road to cataclysmic self-realization. Taylor gives heart and soul to Nora Helmer, perhaps the first woman in modern theatre to speak truth to her powerlessness.

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @FreepKing

Randall King

Randall King
Reporter

In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.

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