Bringing down the house

by Henrik Ibsen
Manchester Library Theatre Scarborough Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round.

Two theatres in the north of England are about to stage A Doll's House, Ibsen's play about Nora Helmer who chooses independence over safe domesticity.

Alan Ayckbourn, directing his first Ibsen at Scarborough, describes the experience of the play as "watching this little world slowly collapse. The drums are gently pounding all evening for Nora".

This is not a sound effect in his naturalistic approach, but an expression of the play exploring "how vulnerable, how alone she can be. Her tricks, little deceits, girlish pleadings have always got her her way, with daddy, then with her husband. Nora has absolute assurance that her husband (Torvald Helmer) will be there for her. He isn't and it's like the roof blows off."

But Chris Honer, directing the same play in Manchester, says Nora is strong in the final act when she resolves to leave her husband. and a hint of this strength is given in the first act when her old schoolfriend Kristina Linde arrives.

"In the very first scene with Kristina, despite Kristina's slight contempt for her, Nora tells of her secret - getting a loan (for a holiday to save her husband Torvald's life), acting independently and secretly. You see the qualities in Nora that come out fully in act three."

The note for the loan is held by Krogstad, who, as he has been sacked by Torvald, blackmails Nora.

If the Helmers' marriage founders on smashed romantic illusions (Torvald goes to pieces when he hears about the loan), Honer sees a contrast in the other couple, Kristina and Krogstad. Their becoming a couple is "very definitely a practical contract (in terms of) what each needs and provides.Krogstad goes from an outsider who claws his way back into society, feels kicked into the gutter again, but is offered redemption by Kristina. She comes to town with nothing. She's brought up her younger brothers, cared for her bedridden mother, has no money and is alone. By the play's end she has a job, a potential husband and has found something to live for. A production should show that as clearly as the development in Nora and Torvald."

The play is "much more optimistic about Kristina and Krogstad; they have the ability to speak honestly to each other," the very ability lacking in the Helmers' marriage. But Honer points out, the two stories are linked as well as contrasting. "Kristina takes the responsibility to organise Krogstad so Torvald will find out about Nora", bringing the final crisis in which Nora's world is shattered. "What she does is very difficult. Torvald never considered his own world values could be broken. His was a world where the husband is absolute moral and spiritual guide."

Ayckbourn finds humour in Ibsen. To begin with, there's "a cheerful rubbing along. Both enjoy their life. Nora enjoys the attention of being a little lark or linnet. There's the business with the macaroons, she hiding,he finding them. Little deceits reflecting the bigger ones to come. She spends a lot of time lying to Torvald and she's good at it as children are.And the scene with Torvald drunk is very funny. He comes back from a party and champagne, wants to drag his wife off to bed and finds her appalling schoolfriend sitting there knitting."

There are, he says, "No villains. Krogstad made a small mistake and has been suffering for it forever." And it's not an issue play: "If we don't care about the characters, we can take sides. But we need to say, 'Poor woman, poor bloke, what a world they live in'."

Manchester, October 22-November 21. Tickets: 0161 236 7110. Scarborough, October 21-November 21. Tickets: 01723 370541

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