Theatre

Solid acting from Marta Dusseldorp and her supporting cast at MTC can’t save A Doll’s House, Part 2, an unnecessary and misguided sequel to Ibsen’s masterpiece.

By Peter Craven.

‘A Doll’s House, Part 2’

Marta Dusseldorp, left, and Zoe Terakes in ‘A Doll’s House, Part 2’.
Credit: Jeff Busby

It’s a long time since Ibsen wrote A Doll’s House, that extraordinary and earth-shattering play about how a genial bird of a woman comes to leave her none-too-lovable but by no means abusive husband. Perhaps it’s the gap in time – 140 years – that has made Lucas Hnath think it might be a piece of cake, or at any rate a conceivable notion, to write a sequel to a drama by a playwright who can seem to have struck the first blow for feminism in the history of theatre.

The upshot is this callow, superficial, middlebrow play, given a conventional, rather blustery production by Sarah Goodes for the Melbourne Theatre Company, with Marta Dusseldorp throwing her fame hither and yon in a big performance that fails to touch the heart or compel the mind, and with an able supporting cast doing all they can to patch up the holes in a theatrical homage to Ibsen that shows how easy it is to lose the plot when you fiddle with the dramaturgy of one of the greatest playwrights.

We sometimes forget how much Ibsen invented the dramatic moment we still inhabit. When he presented in Ghosts the tragic inheritance of a son with a syphilitic father, when he gave in Hedda Gabler a portrait of a tempestuous Clytemnestra of a woman with a fatal weakness for her duelling pistols, when in Peer Gynt he created a kind of pastoral epic that asked for comparison with late Shakespearean romance, or when in When We Dead Awaken he traced the relationship of the imagination to the life of the heart, he was creating a drama, full of naturalism and more than naturalism, which Eugene O’Neill and then Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller and Edward Albee would expend their prodigious talents attempting to follow. It’s Ibsen – the man who could create a drama as densely symbolic as The Lady from the Sea, as Dostoevskian as The Master Builder (with its Nietzschean hero and its devilish sprite of a girl tempting him to topple), or as fraught with the extremity of emotion as Rosmersholm – who created modern drama.

Much more than Chekhov, with his formidable but inimitable masterpieces, Ibsen left a body of work with a richness that can compare to Shakespeare – or Ingmar Bergman if you want a modern parallel – and which offers a substantial and viable response to every kind of dramatic hypothesis life might throw at the practice of playwriting.

So it’s odd in one way, and predictable in another, that A Doll’s House should be the major pretext for getting out the playdough and seeing if the nearest dramaturgical neophyte can do better or differently, if he can fiddle this exasperating and iconoclastic masterpiece into a new coherence.

One difficulty with Ibsen was that he was such a titanic and original figure that he can look topical for his time, which was the last phase of the straitlaced Victorian era. And there is the added incitement to folly by dramatic extension that in the case of A Doll’s House the great Norwegian dramatist wrote two versions back in 1879, in one of which, the Berlin version, Nora finds that she can’t bring herself to leave the children.

So it figures that we should fiddle with A Doll’s House, not least because feminism and the right of a woman to leave an intolerable husband is so much a motherhood issue with us that it seems easy to build on the planks of a realism that the original makes seem schematic and obvious.

And so it is with Hnath’s A Doll’s House, Part 2, which was done in New York in 2017 with Laurie Metcalf getting a Tony for her portrayal of the latter-day Nora. She may well have been wonderful but if so she must have been imagining and improvising around a dramatic potential that is not manifestly there in the script. In Hnath’s second instalment of A Doll’s House Nora comes back after 15 years. She has become, under a nom de plume, a famous writer but she is now threatened by some vengeful judge with the mysterious fact that her husband, Torvald, did not – as she thought – actually divorce her, so she has been acting as a free agent even though she is still in law just an adjunct to her husband. She is encouraged by her old nanny Anne Marie to enlist the support of her daughter, with whom she has had no contact for five years and who is now in her late teens, to persuade Torvald to divorce her. The daughter, Emmy, thinks it would be much better if they were to fake a non-existent death certificate, because everyone has been encouraged to believe by Torvald that Nora quietly died – never mind the absence of a funeral in this small Norwegian town.

It would be too much of a spoiler to give away Torvald’s response to this predicament but it shouldn’t take too much consideration to realise that this set of dramatic postulates makes little sense and that it violates the naturalism and concomitant commitment to probability which Ibsen abides by. Yes, there are great dramatists who play fast and loose with this kind of thing but they do not write like Ibsen, who is, as much as anyone, responsible for the sense of coherence that we take for granted in any form of drama from Shaw to an episode of Lena Dunham’s Girls.

A Doll’s House, Part 2 is shoddy at the level of dramatic plotting and inept in the way it handles its dramatic exposition. Nothing serves as a sharper reminder of the intricacy of Ibsen’s original plot and the individual complexity of all his characters and the way they are enmeshed into the drama.

Goodes’ production at The Sumner in Southbank is broad and bland. It would have fitted easily and perhaps a bit more attractively into the Fairfax Studio at Arts Centre Melbourne. There are vivid back projections at the start and the finish, the latter with a solitary flying bird as a kind of memento of kitsch.

At the centre of all this is Dusseldorp’s Nora. She plays the role of the former bright sparrow of wifeliness with a big, strong, up-yours toughness. Just as Hnath’s plot line is full of holes, this performance allows for little light and shade and hesitation in terms of what murmurs in Nora’s heart. Dusseldorp is a good actress in the right part but in Nora-rides-again she musters little more than a hardy, wilful extroversion and a constant seething impatience. The effect would be more impressive if the writing had emotional depth but most of it simply animates dramatic situations of a diagrammatic simplicity, so the upshot has the one-two-three obviousness of TV comedy without the laugh lines. It’s a pity Dusseldorp doesn’t find some projective key to this rampaging and incoherent cartoon of Nora. She needs to because if the main character is reduced to broad lines of her endeavour – more or less intelligently rendered with a few shades of colour as they are here – then you start seriously to wonder why the play exists.

Elsewhere there are things to admire, though Goodes never achieves that sense of saturated intimacy of a domestic setting full of symbolic portent that characterises her superb production of Joanna Murray-Smith’s Switzerland. Tracy Grant Lord creates a high set, initially with locked doors, in shades of aqua and then reduces it to a bland and, because it’s largely empty, monotonous domestic blue.

Deidre Rubenstein has her moments as Anne Marie, the old housekeeper and nanny who has brought up the kids. She has a composure and a sense of both fairness and grievance and the performance somehow manages to retain the dignity of the character, despite the banality of descents into “I’m really pissed off with you” type colloquialism, which sound idiotic, as well as crass, in what remains at least overtly a 19th-century costume drama.

Zoe Terakes as the daughter Emmy has some kind of compelling pertness and vivacity in a not especially bright role, although she sounds – as she goes up and down the scale of youthful Aussie rising terminals and implicit inverted commas – like a refugee from a more likeable contemporary soap or its transfiguration. She does at least give a bit of vigour and variety to the proceedings and her perky youthfulness and the way in which she bubbles through the pseudo-nightmares Hnath’s plot has engendered is very watchable. She’s clearly a young talent who should be snapped up for every medium.

All of which leaves Greg Stone in the unrewarding role of Torvald. He does better in it than he might, injecting it with a degree of emotional depth the words can sustain but scarcely demand. This is a good performance and it gives the play an effect of emotional closure its gestures towards an impacted insolubility don’t deserve.

It’s a pity about this play because it showcases a talented director and star failing to make much of material that glitters like fool’s gold but really does not have the value it pretends to.

Daniel Schlusser did some variant on A Doll’s House a few years ago with the very talented Nikki Shiels. The play has become for us a kind of two-headed monster of a delusion. We reduce Ibsen to a message that we too readily think we understand completely and therefore can complicate and complexify. Much of this seems to spring from the way Ibsen’s original masterpiece pays such homage to the very archetype he is trying to smash. The Nora I know best is that of Claire Bloom, who is almost too girly – more a Dora, to invoke Dickens’ maddeningly sweet first wife in David Copperfield. It’s significant though that when Bloom wrote her memoir Leaving the Doll’s House, the husband she had wrestled and wrangled with was that formidable man, Philip Roth. It made you reflect that in fact there had been more subtlety and strength in her Nora than you first imagined.

 

Arts Diary

VISUAL ART The Landspace: [all the debils are here]

Tolarno Galleries, Melbourne, until September 29

MULTIMEDIA Black Mist Burnt Country

National Museum of Australia, Canberra, until November 18

THEATRE That Eye the Sky

Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide, until September 16

VISUAL ART Baldessin / Whiteley: Parallel Visions

Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, until October 14

THEATRE The Misanthrope

Sydney Opera House, August 28 – September 28

BALLET Giselle

Arts Centre, Melbourne, August 30 – September 8

Last chance

CULTURE Vikings: Beyond the Legend

Melbourne Museum, until August 26

VISUAL ART Robert Hunter

NGV Australia, Melbourne, until August 26

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 25, 2018 as "Never a Doll moment". Subscribe here.

Peter Craven
is a literary and culture critic.