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Review: The Dollhouse

Iona Salter

Tue Sep 20 2011

Nikki Shiels, The Dollhouse

A PLAY based on the plight of the 19th century wife and mother should not – given the transformation of woman’s role in society – be easily adapted to the 21st century. But modern adaptations of Henrik Ibsen’s classic play A Doll’s House prove time and time again that it can be done. And in the case of Melbourne director Daniel Schlusser’s The Dollhouse, done incredibly well.

Schlusser’s Nora (Nikki Shiels) is a character you can easily imagine in modern day Melbourne – clicking down Chapel St in designer heels, perhaps shopping for a refurbished Eames piece for her warehouse conversion. Of course, we don’t actually see her out in public, as the play is solely acted out in the confines of the home – the domestic sphere inside which Nora’s entire existence is bound.

It is Christmas eve, and her husband Torvald (Kade Greenland), a banker at Macquarie, has just received a promotion. Nora, obsessed by money and status, writhes childishly on the floor, overcome with excitement at the prospect of becoming a “Macquarie wife.”

They are soon visited by Kristine (Edwina Wren), an old school friend of Nora’s who embodies the independence and resourcefulness Nora lacks. Nora soon confides in her friend that she is in a large amount of debt after borrowing money from their mutual acquaintance Nils Krogstad (played by Schlusser), something Torvald is unaware of. When Krogstad realises that Nora forged her dead father’s signature on their contract, he begins a course of blackmail against the couple.

As the Christmas festivities unfold, and the various characters’ complexities and struggles are unpacked, a picture is painted of a marriage without equality and a relationship without depth.

Perhaps the apparent ease with which the Norwegian playwright’s work has been adapted to modern day Australia is in part due to A Doll’s House’s portrayal of the struggles of all of humanity – after all, Ibsen never accepted the feminist label. But the success of Schlusser’s adaptation is also due to an exceptionally talented cast.

Despite her character’s passivity, Nikki Shiels leads the cast brilliantly. The degree to which Nora is infantised by her husband is perfectly exemplified as Shiels unhesitatingly throws herself into absurd scenes requiring childlike enthusiasm – from regurgitating marshmallows on stage to Tina Turner impersonations.

For much of the play the audience is given the feeling of being a fly on the wall of Nora and Torvald’s domestic life. Banal yet captivating snippets of conversation make up much of the dialogue, and interactions between characters often continue long after the focus has shifted to another interaction on a separate part of the stage. What results is a remarkable degree of believability. It’s like watching Big Brother, but the people aren’t two-dimensional – in a sense both literal and metaphorical.

At times the dialogue seems comfortably ad-libbed – the cast so comfortable in their characters and their relationships with one another that it seems as though they have been playing them for years. Shiels, Greenland and Wren, along with Josh Price, who completes The Dollhouse’s cast as Dr Rank, all appeared in Schlusser’s 2009 production of another Ibsen classic, Peer Gynt. Their cohesion as a performance ensemble is evident in the ease with which they have pulled off this latest production.

Schlusser is no novice when it comes to adapting the classics, having previously directed the Victorian Green Room Award-nominated adaptation of Pedro Calderon de la Barca’s Life is Dream, among others. Unusually, The Dollhouse takes a different path to that of many modern day adaptations of Ibsen’s classic, in that it incorporates the alternate ending thrust upon it by those who thought Nora’s eventual defiance of her role as wife and mother too risqué.

Volumes have been written on the social themes entwined in this play, but given the average audience requires more than strong thematic material to engage with a performance, it’s worth ending with this observation: The Dollhouse is entertaining, engaging and witty. They are perhaps the three most basic reasons it should be seen, but they are good reasons nonetheless.

The Dollhouse is playing at Fortyfive Downstairs, 45 Flinders Lane, until September 25. Tickets are $25 for students and $40 for others.