The house that Ibsen built

1st November 1996 at 00:00
Nora's door-slam, as the heroine of Ibsen's A Doll's House walks out on her marriage, famously resounded across Europe. But how about some of the men in her life?

At Salisbury, Paul Jepson, directing one of three revivals, believes that nowadays there are new worries about marriage, giving the play a new focus. Rehearsals have tried to see the action from the husband Torvald's viewpoint so audiences can sympathise with him - otherwise he's too easy a target. Anthony Page, whose production is in London's West End, says that a foolish Torvald would reflect badly on Nora, who loves him.

They agree that both partners enjoy the doll's house: "The marriage is Nora's playroom, but he likes to play too," says Jepson. "Nora is a rare character in a modern play, she has no sub text. She's always in the moment except for the 10 per cent of life when she's with her big secret."

Like Ibsen, says Page, Torvald is terrified of debt. The Helmers have been struggling financially. Jepson sees Torvald as "Intelligence without imagination. He's very good at sums. He can hold atrocious views because he can't be bothered to work his way into others' minds." Panicking, self-dramatising, he is everything he accuses Nora of being. But "in rehearsal it's emerged Torvald absolutely adores her". The eroticism between them is something which, according to Page, Ibsen increased after the first draft.

But he reduced Dr Rank's role during revisions. Page sees Rank as making Nora, the happy skylark who comes to contemplate suicide, view death realistically. "Nora knows Rank will die but does not want to think of it," says Jepson. His disease, spinal TB or syphilis - it varies between directors - has made him a virgin. Unlike Helmer and Krogstad, Rank is not essential to the play's intrigue. But, says Page, he gives Nora someone she can talk to as a friend. She enjoys being cheeky about Torvald with Rank.

Page sees danger in regarding Rank symbolically, but Jepson finds an interplay between physical and moral disease. He also provides a contrast "Rank is needed so you can see his despair and enormous dignity when he accepts his death. " The contrast is with his "ghastly" views on how helping the weak turns society into a hospital - "Rank certainly wouldn't believe in the Welfare State," says Page.

Irina Brown, at Birmingham, believes Rank loves Nora and Torvald. "He knows he loves Nora but manages not to disclose it." Until, "as a person on the threshold of death he has a greater sense of self-awareness." Rank appreciates Torvald's hatred of ugliness. "We never see Torvald and Rank alone together in a substantial scene but their friendship is a deep relationship. They have been friends from childhood (childhood friendships run through this play) and such friends accept differences as well as similarities."

But it means Rank allows Torvald to be blind about himself. Brown agrees Torvald is not condemned in the play: "Torvald is a victim of circumstances. Society panders to him." Dr Rank acts as "a looking-glass, on the edge of a precipice. He wants to belong to a family unit. He is very much seeking life. His confession to Nora is a fear of anonymity. He wants to leave an impression on others."

Birmingham Repertory Theatre until tomorrow (0121 236 4455), Salberg Studio, Salisbury Playhouse to November 16 (01722 320333), Playhouse Northumberland Avenue, London (0171 839 4401)

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