Review by Michael Davis - Female Arts
Famed 19th century Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen wrote some of the most important female characters for the theatre to date. Some have said that his Hedda Gabler is the female equivalent of Hamlet. For my money though, such an accolade is more befitting to Nora Helmer in A Doll's House.
Starring Carly Halse as Nora and directed by Rosemary Hill, Pepper's Ghost Theatre's production of A Doll's House is a stark reminder of how far the rights and status of women have evolved in the past 100+ years.
A few days before Christmas Nora is visited by an old friend Christina Linde (Beverley Webster) who she hasn't seen for several years. Christina's visit isn't purely social – she's looking for work now that she's moved back to town and hoped her old friend can help. Nora's more than happy to do this, especially as her husband Torvald (Allan Martin) will be starting a new job at the bank in the new year, with increased remuneration. Nora also confesses to Christina her dread secret – that she borrowed money (something women weren't allowed to do of their own volition back then) by forging her father's signature to pay for her husband's life-saving trip abroad to warmer climates.
However, Christina's presence draws Nils Krogstad (Bart Gamber) out into the open – the man from whom Nora borrowed the money and who also works in the same bank as Torvald. Events start to unravel at breakneck speed and the chances of Nora making it through Christmas without her past misdemeanour coming to light look extremely unlikely...
Hill's production really highlights the importance of financial independence for women and what it means for those who don't have it. Plays like Sarah Daniels' The Gut Girls in comparison show how emancipated these women were compared to their peers and perceived as a threat to the natural order of things.
Another thing that Hill's A Doll's House does well is show how Nora panders to Torvald's childlike opinion of her, to keep him off the scent of her independent mind. While his pet names for her are meant to be 'playful', they're from innocuous, and his final conversation with Nora unequivocably reveal his true opinion of her and what she can hope for from their marriage. To our modern sensibilities, it is as irksome to hear as nails scratching a blackboard:
TORVALD: ...It seems as if that had made her, as it were, doubly his own; he has given her a new life, so to speak; and she has in a way become both wife and child to him. So you shall be for me after this, my little scared, helpless darling. Have no anxiety about anything, Nora; only be frank and open with me, and I will serve as will and conscience both to you...
When Nora makes the declaration of her duty to herself, she becomes in spirit like her contemporaries the 'Blue Stockings' in the UK, not letting anything or anyone deter her from her quest to know about the world and who she really is.
Ably supported by the rest of the cast, Halse's performance in the play is every bit as nuanced and complex as Nora's emotional journey, from playful optimism to fearful apprehension to calm resoluteness.
Topping off Hill's fine production is Kevin Jenkins' set, the icing on the cake: ornate, fragile, beautiful to look at, but not for living in – in short a doll's house...
© Michael Davis 2015
Pepper's Ghost Theatre's production of A Doll's House took place in Milton Keynes' Stantonbury Theatre between 14-17 October 2015.
Review by Ian Spiby
Stantonbury Theatre - 15 October 2015
I’ve often said, paraphrasing Sir Thomas Beecham, that I would swop the whole of Shakespeare’s canon for a single play by Ibsen and think that I had greatly profited by the exchange. And Rosemary Hill’s production of A Doll’s House went a long way to re-confirming that view.
A Doll’s House is often regarded as the play which launched the revolution in theatre that happened during the 20th Century. Its original audience were horrified, shocked and appalled that Ibsen had questioned the unquestionable ideas held at that time about women: that they were the property of their husbands, that they could not exist without a man to guide them and that their most sacred duty was to be wives and mothers. I was a little amused but also encouraged by the audible and visible outrage expressed by the school students in the 2015 audience when Helmer gave voice to those views. (So things HAVE changed in the last hundred or so years!)
But to the production itself. It was professional in every way: the set, costumes and lighting would not have looked out of place on the West End stage. But even more exciting (and what you often DON’T get in the West End) is that Rosemary’s directorial hand was clearly visible, providing a coherent vision to the whole thing. Wisely in my view, she did not stray far from Ibsen’s own directions for the play – after all, he had been a theatre director himself for many years and so knew what he was about. But her directorial decisions were most clear in the shaping of the characters because here, choices do have to be made.
In a way, the success of the play depends largely on the character of Nora. And Carly Halse did not disappoint. What delighted me was that at every moment I could see the thoughts behind the actions, which made her utterly convincing. The same can be said of Beverley Webster’s Mrs Linde - so the scenes they had together were electric in their intensity.
When all the cast were of such a high standard, it is invidious to single people out but I did enjoy the “love scene” between Mrs Linde and Krogstad (Bart Gamber), played with great truth and sincerity. And the tiny part of the maid (Thea Taylor) who showed us that she was a real person who as a servant had eyes and ears and knew exactly what was going on in the Helmer household!
The iconic scene is of course, the last one and between them, Rosemary and Carly got it exactly right with the school students, who once again, audibly and visibly, demonstrated that they thought Helmer had got what was coming to him!
A first rate production, which running at an unfashionable three hours in length, kept my attention every minute.
Former Head of Performance Studies
University of Northampton
Review by Neil Beardmore
Who needs to spend piles of money to see classics in the West End – not to mention train tickets too – when you can see plays like A DOLL’S HOUSE in your own town at a fraction of the cost? Don’t we realise in Milton Keynes that we have a highly professional company in Pepper’s Ghost who manages one slick production after another? We must keep applauding the fact that Rosemary Hill’s troupe are keeping live theatre absolutely live and challenging locally and that to complete the picture we owe them our support.
A great play needs great acting to make it rise for us, and with this production we are not disappointed, tracing Carly Halse’s Nora from a ‘squander-bird’ and ‘song-bird’ sheltered and spoiled girl to a woman finding full control of her destiny. Carly does this admirably by presenting at first a Nora who is over dramatic and childlike, making the transformation at the end to a sure and confident person facing the unknown the more powerful. Allan Martin ably interprets the fumbling, hypocritical Torvald who ‘forgives’ Nora, yet we cannot ourselves forgive him or the male centred society he represents – a society whose bias towards the male Ibsen attacks.
Nor should we ignore the strong supporting cast: Beverley Webster gives us a convincing Mrs Linde, a woman who ironically starts out the counterpart of Nora, in that she is managing life alone. Part of Ibsen’s fine craft is that he creates multi dimensional characters who have real motives, even if they are described by other characters as ‘morally corrupt’ ; Bart Gamber gives us such a character as Nils Krogstad and allows us to see he has suffered and can be redeemed. The play unfolds to us the idea that Truth cannot be hidden forever, and when it comes out it must change people irrevocably. Victor Guse creates a believable Dr Rank, suffering almost Biblically as he does the sins of his father and Thea Taylor making her debut with Pepper’s Ghost shows a lot of stage presence: someone to watch on the rise. Clever direction brings out something often omitted in ‘conservative’ and ‘safe’ productions: Ibsen’s canny use of ironic humour.
Each time Kevin Jenkins amazes us with his sets which are so subtly and artistically projected: here the pillars of the drawing room curve upwards to symbolise the cage that Nora is imprisoned in. How often do you see a real grand piano on stage, and a period wood burner that we actually believe is too hot to touch? This, with supportive lighting and stage management ensure a thorough interpretation of one of the greatest plays of all time, great because it is not bound by time or culture and will thus always be relevant.
Nothing is left to chance: in the foyer interesting research material about Ibsen and his times, along with amazing recent photos of Norway by Simon Raynor make us feel we have experienced what real theatre is all about: being entertained, excited and educated. Another ten out of ten.
Review 15th October by Alexander Lynch
Producer and Director Rosemary Hill takes her Pepper’s Ghost Theatre company presentation of Henrik Ibsen’s ‘A Doll’s House’ to Stantonbury Theatre.
From the daddy of realist drama a family tragedy unfolds where the characters are locked into a society where people are defined and confined by their gender. Set in Norway in 1879 over Christmas and New Year a visitation of events that would bring about a rebirth and new beginnings for all of the characters in some degree. It is about an awakening but it is a hard awakening and indeed some suffering. It is the values of that time that drives the play's central conflicts.
The set design is of course the first thing that greets your eyes as you enter the theatre. The set as designed by Kevin Jenkins wonderfully introduces the play as it encapsulates the life and times of those inhabiting the house within a wintery cage. The snowflakes decor for winter and the arches signifying a cage housing the skylark and squirrel called Nora. The set tells the story. Good one Kevin. Not forgetting the lighting by James Teal for the lighting of the hallway highlighting the glass letterbox suspending the damaging letter and especially for the flickering flames burning those letters.
Nora played by Carly Halse starts off as ‘dim but nice’, likes to spend, likes to flirt, and likes to keep a secret from her husband. She doesn’t like when her secret becomes known, she doesn’t like being blackmailed and above all else she doesn’t like being treated like a doll, a chattel, a plaything. She doesn’t like not being allowed to be herself. Her new year’s resolution is to go and find herself. Carly wonderfully portrayed Nora, the stamina the emotion told me she was Nora. As Nora she made me laugh, she irritated me she slowly pulled me into her world and left us with a tear. Carly is going to some wonderful places... watch her.
Torvald played by Allan Martin is a man of that period, he wallows in being the provider and protector of his family. He craves for the acceptance of the society of that time. He even says he would give his life for Nora his wife. That is until he discovers Nora’s secret and sees it as a betrayal. His anger that later turned to forgiveness to keep the family image intact at least in the eyes of society would in the end drive Nora away. Now Allan allowed me to like his character in the beginning, his tone his physicality made me warm to him. Then without changing Allan flipped the coin and that tone that physicality showed me the misguided person society allowed him to be. If I meet Allan in the street I shall pat him on the head.
Nils played by Bart Gamber says he wants to rehabilitate himself, from the life he was forced to lead. His actions however do not bode well when to save himself from Torvald’s treatment he reveals the secret that ties him with Nora. Reflecting upon his actions he releases Torvald and Nora from his influence but not the consequences of his revelation. As soon as Bart walked on stage I sat deeper into my seat and the bitterness in his voice made me watch him closely. All he needed was a clap of thunder and a bolt of lightning. But as with all the actors in this play Bart was toying with my emotions. Before long he had me on his side I’m sure from my seat way back I could see a tear when he recited his past and sought another chance.
Christine played by Beverley Webster was in love with Nils when they were both young but ‘sense’ prevailed and she married for security and to support her mother and brothers. No longer with the burden of marriage and family but feeling an emptiness in her life she visits Nora, a friend of old, and meets the love she gave up, Nils. Ever the pragmatist Christine persuades Nils to act in a way that helps her reunite with Nils but on her terms, a marriage of equal partners. Beverley showed her undoubted skill when she had that two hander with Bart and managed to make me think by her nuanced performance, even as I write, why she persuaded/manipulated Nils to act in the way he did.
Dr. Rank played by Victor Guse is somewhat of a philosopher and is enamoured by Nora and appears to be her confidant although he wants to be more. The good doctor reveals Nils’s seedy past to Nora and Christine. The Doctor is himself terminally ill. Victor made me smile as he played the ever optimist especially at that part where he thought he might just have a last fling with Nora, the last wish I suppose of a dying man. Victor’s job in this play was to join the dots and he did a great job. Book him for those dry comedic roles.
Anna-Marie was the nanny and she was played effectively by April Pardoe. Sometimes in a play there is one movement, one look that lingers in the memory and captures the play. That moment for me was when April in the second act was exiting after speaking with Norma where April opened the door, turned and gave a look that wrote the book.
Of course I can’t forget the quality performance of Helen the maid played by Thea Taylor and the other talent of the future Nora and Torvald’s three small children.
OK then the person who stole the show was the little girl played by Chloe or was it Florence who on her entrance called out ‘Daddy’... Torvald you should have listened.
Finally the costumes were wonderful; all I ask is when Bart is finished with his count me in.
The play is timeless and you should take the time to see it and talk about it.
Well done Rosemary and all the cast and crew the large audience showed their appreciation with hoops and hollers.