First performed in 1879, Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House follows the crumbling marriage of Nora and Torvald Helmer. Their lives and partnership, idyllic from the outside, collapse when placed under stress. These pressures come from within, as both characters have their own betrayals of one another, but also from the outside, as each lives up to the expectations of the society they exist within.
While the original play follows the lives of a bourgeois Norwegian couple, State Theatre Company of South Australia’s adaptation has been updated and localised for an Adelaide audience by actor and playwright Elena Carapetis. Director Geordie Brookman casts this decision within his own approach to producing theatre, saying “it’s in keeping with the way that I tend to approach most classic repertoire”.
“I always want to look at how it can best be reframed through our own experience,” the State Theatre artistic director says. “I’m not particularly interested in what I guess I would call ‘museum theatre’ – that idea of trying to recreate what it might have been.”
With the recently written sequel A Doll’s House, Part 2 currently playing on Broadway, Brookman says the play is “clearly in the zeitgeist again, although the issues at the heart of the play have never really gone away”.
The subject of gender equality has come roaring back into popular discussion, with particular attention being paid to the structural disadvantages, expectations and dangers women face on a daily basis. Is a play written in 19th century Norway really relevant to today’s debate, though? Brookman thinks so, and says that this show’s resurgent popularity is evidence of that fact.
“I think we still have an enormous distance to travel in terms of gender equality,” he says. “That’s something where we have made strides, but I would say that in the last 10 to 15 years there’s been a fairly firm pushback from some sections of the community, you know, the rise of the slightly scary men’s rights movement, the growing trend of some prominent younger women treating feminism as a dirty word… We’re in a moment where that sort of pushback appearing is probably a sign that we’re on the verge of making real progress, and it’s a reaction against that.”
The production’s lead actors, Miranda Daughtry, who plays Nora, and Dale March, who plays Torvald, agree with Brookman. Asked whether the gender roles Ibsen pointed out in 1879 have changed much in the intervening 138 years, Daughtry flatly states, “Not enough, no.”
“I think it’s intrinsic in the way that we live,” says the NIDA-trained Adelaide actor. “The whole groundwork for how we structure our life is based on a patriarchy, and as much as we would love for it to be an option for us to change, and for us to slowly move into a lovely equality, there are systems in place that make that so difficult.”
Elaborating on her role as Nora, Daughtry says the character feels “very, very real to me – very familiar” as she’s “pushed everything that’s shaken her right down to the bottom so she doesn’t have to face it”.
“I think we all know people who behave in these ways because they are the ways that are offered to us by our culture to behave and relate and cope … She is, in a way, the ‘everywoman’ in the way that she has learnt to accommodate other people and care for the way people are feeling. She’s a giver and she loves making people happy. That’s something I see all over the place.”
March agrees and lauds the way that Carapetis has adapted Ibsen’s text, bringing the play into a starkly modern context without losing its all-important structure.
“I was happy to see that Ellie [Carapetis] has really kept the play as Ibsen’s play,” he says. “She’s done such structural work on finding every key point and translating it fairly directly, so you don’t lose it.”
Speaking of its shift into our present day, March believes the show will speak strongly to a modern audience, not least because in a contemporary context the original version of Torvald is “laughable” as a character.
“That’s always been my problem with productions I’ve seen and reading it — you just too quickly jump to not believing him in a modern context… the challenge for me is finding how to truly empathise with someone like Torvald, who is a victim, which might be the wrong word, but is a victim – a product of his society.”
“No, I think that’s apt,” says Daughtry of Torvald. “He is a victim of whatever toxic ideologies have been working on him, whether or not he’s encountered other ways of thinking or being. That masculinity is such an armour.”
Brookman says he made a “very firm decision” to cast March, “a very gentle, very warm actor” in this role to make Torvald believable as a modern husband.
“Torvald represents a type of contemporary man who thinks that he’s quite liberal and progressive,” says Brookman. “He thinks that he loves his partner in a true and generous way, but in fact he’s operating under an illusion that actually just reaffirms his place of power and privilege within his community. He’s a major key into that theme.”
“It’s no fun if you never love their love and aren’t a little bit seduced by the way they relate,” Daughtry adds.
Both leads say they feel privileged to be a part of this new ensemble troupe with State Theatre Company, the first since Simon Phillips was named the company’s artistic director in 1989. Alongside Rachel Burke, Rashidi Edward, Nathan O’Keefe and Anna Steen, Daughtry and March are set to work on three more plays for the company in 2017 and 2018.
March jokes that he’s “just relieved they’re not jerks,” while Daughtry expects it will be a fascinating experience for regular State Theatre audiences to watch these actors grow and continue to work together.
“I would be very interested as an audience member,” she says, “because it’s not that often as an audience member that you get to see someone doing such a diverse range of things.”
That’s the aim, says Brookman of the new ensemble cast that he put together himself, with some actors having been hand-picked and others going through a rigorous audition process.
“It’s a strange thing,” he says. “We don’t question the fact that symphony orchestras need large numbers of resident musicians. We don’t question the fact that dance companies have full-time dancers. Yet for some reason within theatre somewhere along the line we lost the argument about how essential it is to have actors within a company. So there’s the holistic reason behind it, but it’s also an experience I want our audience to have. I want our audience to be able to follow a group of actors over the development of a body of work.
“In the ‘70s and ‘80s we used to have an intake of graduate actors every year. People would come to State [Theatre] to begin their careers and that’s what gives us our connection to actors like Mel Gibson, Colin Friels and Judy Davis. The company has a great history of taking a risk on talent and I wanted to get us back into that territory.”
Asked why the ensemble is starting out with A Doll’s House, Brookman says that he wants to challenge his ensemble with classical texts such as this and the next show, Macbeth.
“I do believe that nothing tests you quite like the classics,” he says. “You’re forced to be brave. It forces performers to be courageous because they have the weight of history competing with them, and because I felt that it was a play that was incredibly present and needed to be onstage at this point.”
Brookman is coy on the two shows to follow this year’s season, but lets out a couple of hints for 2018’s season.
“One is a purposely commissioned play for the ensemble, the other will be a sort of really, really, really fun reinvention of a piece of classic repertoire…. It’s about them kind of intersecting in a really fun way with a great piece of English literature. That’s about as much as I can say.”
A Doll’s House
Friday, June 30 to Saturday, July 22
Photography: Sia Duff
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