Women against convention

15th November 1996 at 00:00
Heather Neill sees London theatre productions that turn duty into pleasure. London is buzzing with productions which will turn dutiful, exam-minded theatre visits into pleasure. At the Playhouse, A Doll's House features a mesmerising performance by Janet McTeer as Nora in a flexible, natural-sounding new translation by Frank McGuinness.

One of the advantages of presenting classic plays originally written in another language is that English versions can be attuned to the ear of each succeeding generation. Ibsen seems "modern", while retaining some of the qualities which shocked his first audiences. And however well you know the plot, Anthony Page's direction keeps the level of tension at a peak throughout the full three-and-a-half hours.

McTeer's Nora, never still, a giggling, playful creature to begin with, is also a manipulative, intelligent woman who reveals her true character to herself as much as to her husband, Torvald, before the famous door slam which marks her exit from a suffocating marriage. Nora's anguish at leaving home and children makes it clear that this is more than mere attention-seeking. Owen Teale plays Torvald as a simpler character than his wife, sexually besotted with her, but without the imagination or the moral rigour to understand her true nature.

Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (recently arrived at the Aldwych from the Almeida),written 70-odd years later, also deals with honesty in marriage and also boasts a potentially prize-winning lead performance in Diana Rigg's vulgar, boozy, touching Martha. This time, unable to escape her role as campus wife and cheated of motherhood, an unfulfilled woman uses her intelligence in a deadly verbal duel. Rigg and David Suchet as George (ably supported by Clare Holman and Lloyd Owen as the younger couple caught in the marital maelstrom) do full justice to a literary text which encompasses both philosophical discussion and emotional karate chops. This is a wonderful production for anyone studying the play, but Howard Davies' direction itself provides lessons in theatrical skills.

At the National Theatre, David Thacker's revival of Death of a Salesman brings out the tension between the generations in Willy's fraught relationship with his elder son, Biff, played by Mark Strong. Alun Armstrong gives Willy a sad, shambling dignity as Miller's title-role dreamer and Marjorie Yates is gently convincing as his long-suffering wife. Miller's assertion that all the events happen in the present rather than as flashbacks has led director and designer (Fran Thompson) to position characters and significant props around the Lyttelton's revolve, where they are constantly in view. This leads to a dissipation of energy, a blurring of focus, in a production otherwise true to the author's purpose in paralleling private emotion and public responsibility.

The Royal Shakespeare Company has brought As You Like It, Macbeth and The Herbal Bed from Stratford to the Barbican. Roger Allam and Brid Brennan play the murderous Macbeths in Tim Albery's production and Niamh Cusack makes a charming if resolutely feminine Rosalind in Steven Pimlott's As You Like It. Peter Whelan's The Herbal Bed is not yet on anyone's syllabus, but this tale of Shakespeare's daughter and her suit for defamation against a gentleman of Stratford who had accused her of having contracted gonorrhoea during an extra-marital affair, could provide endless scope for sixth form discussions about morality as well as colourful background about the Reformation and Jacobean medicine. Otherwise, intelligently written, deftly directed (by Michael Attenborough) and passionately acted (notably by Teresa Banham as Susanna and Joseph Fiennes as her would-be lover) this could provide weary teachers with an off-duty treat.

Playhouse: 0171 8394401; Aldwych: 0171 416 6003; National Theatre: 0171 928 2252; RSC 0171 638 8891

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