As a sixth form theatre studies student i studied Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and developed a huge affection for it. The production I saw in London at the time was stunning and the impression it left on me has lasted over the years. I felt Ibsen’s play was courageous, it had a rebellious spirit I admired, and the courage of Ibsen’s Nora I found inspiring. All this being so, I was excited to see Nora, an adaptation of Ibsen’s play by Ingmar Bergman.
To be honest, my overwhelming feeling now is that this production really betrayed Ibsen’s masterpiece. I had been expecting more ‘adaptation’, but Bergman’s script seems to merely cut huge chunks out of Ibsen’s text - some, which in my opinion shed important light on many aspects of the play we did see.
First I would like to briefly critique the production itself, before moving on to some of the issues and questions it raised.
The actual production, directed by Patricia Benecke, I must admit, I did not find overly impressive. I found most of the characters, particularly Nora, were overacted and unconvincing, with exception of Christine, Nora’s long lost friend. While it is true that one of over riding themes of the play is how childlike and naieve Nora is (indeed her ‘doll like’ existence), in this instance i felt that this was unneccesarily overdone - almost in some places to the point of farce, and definitely to the point of irritation! Likewise, i felt that the roles of Doctor Rank and Krogstadt lacked the depth that these characters potentially have given the script. (Rank was altogether too lighthearted about his imminent death, to the point i think where people in the audience who did not know the play wouldn’t have really realised that he was about to die!)
The set was poor and not particularly well conceived. I felt that it really lacked imagination - except perhaps for the two gold fish trapped in their tank at the back of the stage; a representation of Nora & Torvald i assume (I only wished one of them had miraculously jumped out at the end!) The set did provide a stark background on which to focus the action though.
There were some odd choices made by the director of this production of Nora, not least the inclusion of a sex scene with full nudity from Torvald. Not, in my opinion, at all neccesary, except for courting publicicty perhaps? But the main choice that really rubbed me up the wrong way was to set the play, orginially written in 1879, in the present day.
For me this entirely shifted the heart of the play, and I’m not convinced it really worked. Let me elaborate; When Ibsen wrote his play, in which the wife & mother (Nora) walks out of ‘the dolls house’ that is her life, and walks away from her husband and children, it caused massive controversy. As the director alluded to in the post show discussion, in some cases Ibsen was forced to write an alternative ending where Nora decides to stay - so explosive was his indended ending to a Victorian audience. The context of the play then, is massively different to what it is if we set it today. In Ibsen’s time it was expected of women of Nora’s standing that they go from being owned by their father to owned by their husband. Women were very much a possession, unable to own their own property, unable to vote, and with very little autonomy - other than that allowed them by their significant males. Thus the easy understanding of Ibsens’ audiences of the situation Nora is in - and the audacity of her choices throughout the play - from the revelation that she has borrowed money, to her eventual departure. It would have been almost unheard of, and certainly extremely shocking, for Ibsen’s audiences that a wife and mother would have the gaul to leave her positions as such. This is in stark contrast to our society today - where marriage separations and divorces are commonplace; where a divorce can be negotiated and agreed upon - as can custody; and importantly, where woman are given (in our western societies) an education, and are able to work and provide for themselves. All this would have been alien to Ibsen’s Nora. For her to leave as she does in A Doll’s House would have meant sacrificing everything. She wouldn’t have had the choice to take the children with her, it is unlikely she would have been able to provide for them - even IF society would have accepted them leaving with her. If marriages did end in this era the children remained with the father.
In my interpretation of Ibsen’s original Nora is portrayed ultimately as courageous - giving voice to the idea that a woman was more than just a daughter, a wife or a mother - that before all these she was a human being. A revolutionary idea at the time, that we maybe take for granted today. In a modernised setting the impact of Nora’s decision to leave is entirely different. In light of the relative freedom in relationships that we have today, suddenly Nora’s choice - as a 21st Century woman makes us feel slightly at odds. It is for this reason, i think, that one of the reactions voiced in the post show discussion - and shared by many who attended the play, was an outrage that Nora could so dismissively walk out on her children. Perhaps we empathise with her character striking out on her own from her domineering, chauvinistic husband - but to abandon her children? It sits at odds with our modern understanding of people and similar situations.
As I have already mentioned, the context of this in the original historical setting was something quite different. Nora’s choice would be stay and be forever a doll, or leave - and leaving meant leaving her children too. Today, thankfully, we have more options open to us. But also Bergman’s dramatic nip-tuck of the play cuts out entirely another historical element that could perhaps help us understand Nora’s decision further. In Ibsen’s A Doll’s House we see scenes with the children in them; looked after almost entirely by their maid, and occasionally played with (like dolls) by their mother. This would have been typical for many middle class families in this era; historical Nora therefore may have had scant emotional attachment to her children. Not ,by a long way, the emotional attachment we assume of her modern day counterpart. So when modern Nora leaves, so suddenly, so completely, it seems to us less courageous and rather more callous. A modern Nora we may admire would be one who stands up to her husband, possibly divorces, but has the love to retain a relationship with her children.
For me this ‘mother leaves children’ theme was the most thought provoking thing about this particular production. And what i did like about it in this sense is that it challenges our deeply held, sexist assumptions that it is always the man that abandons his wife and children. It irks me that we see that scenario played out time and time again in popular media without much reaction - but when it is the mother who leaves we feel this isn’t right. And (this is probably a topic for another blog) it starts to make us question the assumed parental positions of male and female. The assumption that a maternal bond trumps a paternal bond. My four siblings and I were brought up by my dad for the past 13 years (the five of us ranging from 6-15 yrs old at the time)- and he, to me, is a prime example of a challenge to stereotypical parental norms.
Mothers do leave their families; families do separate and the children remain with the father. It is a really tricky dilemma i feel, that in some ways such women can be seen to be claiming their independence, maybe they are ‘escaping’ situations where they feel de-humanised (like Nora) or trapped, the feeling of being trapped might be in the role of mother, as well as of wife. It is no doubt that the increased social liberation of women today means that woman are more free to make these autonomous decisions over their own lives (good); and yet - they likey leave behind children wanting a mother, who don’t understand all that and are left feeling abandoned (bad). It’s a difficult one to unravel, and i feel underqualified to talk too much about it as I am not a parent, but it’s worth a pause for thought.
Returning to Nora, what we also missed from this adaptation is the contrasting relationship Ibsen presents of Christine & Krogstadt. This was alluded to in one scene, but in the original this relationship is much more poignantly given to us. Here Ibsen showed his audience that there was an alternative to the position Nora found herself in. Christine and Krogstadt, both widowers, choose one another and form a relationship based on love and shared desire, in defiance of accepted norms - the opposite of the arranged, patriarchal relationship Nora finds herself in. Throughout the play Christine champions the idea that Nora should tell Torvald the truth, and shows us (and Nora) that a woman could be self sufficient. She, it would seem, has already been freed from the dolls house society would put her in. In A Doll’s House we see Nora’s gradual awakening, that builds throughout the play, as though a butterfly emerges from a cocoon; in Nora with so much of the script cut, and the brash acting of the lead, i felt this was lost.
I left the post show discussion with an overwhelming desire to discuss more! Despite my reservations about the actors, the set, and the choices made for the production - it raised a whole new set of questions which i hadn’t considered before. It also made me really want to re-read Ibsen’s play and get my hands on some tickets to see the London production again!
Thanks to everyone who came along as well, I hope you found it as stimulating as i did!
- katacharin posted this