After 140 years, Ibsen classic A Doll's House still shocks — but in a very different way
Royal MTC’s production sometimes gives in to melodrama, but is propelled by a superb lead performance
When Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House premiered in 1879, it was considered scandalous by some Victorian-era audiences for the way it dealt with questions of marriage and a woman's place in the world.
The new Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre Warehouse production running as part of Ibsenfest — RMTC's 19th annual Master Playwright Festival — proves that in 2019, the play can still draw gasps.
Now, though, that's because it reveals how retrograde our thinking was not so very far back in our history.
Ibsen's play, now hailed as a classic, focuses on Nora Helmer (Stratford Festival veteran Shannon Taylor), seemingly girlish and frivolous when we meet her and her husband, Torvald (Kevin Klassen). Things are looking up for the Helmers — it's Christmas, Torvald has just landed a big promotion at the bank, and Nora's been on a shopping spree.
Director Rona Waddington's lively and stylish production (a tip of the top hat is due for set and costumer designer Brian Perchaluk) opens with a wordless, dance-like montage — people twirl across the stage with wrapped packages, a Christmas tree is whisked in, a perfect family pauses briefly for a photograph.
Before long, though, we learn Nora's dark secret. Unbeknownst to Torvald, she not-quite-legally borrowed a large sum of money to help pay for his recuperation from an illness years ago.
The man she borrowed the money from, Krogstad (Cory Wojcik), now finds himself a subordinate of her husband at the bank — and threatens to blackmail Nora unless she helps him secure his position there.
All of this has the trappings of melodrama — and in spots, Waddington's otherwise engaging production indulges that melodrama (jerky and dramatic lighting shifts and ominous music in Nora's asides feel cheesy).
And A Doll's House shows its age in places; its wordiness isn't helped by a translation by Joan Tindale that sometimes leaves dialogue sounding a tad stilted.
But it holds up after 140 years because Ibsen moves beyond the melodramatic overtones, crafting characters who are psychologically rich and who behave in complicated and satisfying human ways.
Whether or not that works in a production hinges on the strength of the performer in the role of Nora, and Taylor rises admirably to the occasion.
She brings a believable capriciousness to Nora in earlier scenes, and makes her dramatic shift over the course of the play's 150 minutes (with intermission) equally credible. It's a superb performance that creates a solid centre for a strong cast.
Wojcik is likewise impressive as Krogstad, who would, in a lesser piece or a less thoughtful production, simply seem villainous. Here, thanks to an achingly human performance, he seems not just pitiable but understandable, in spite of his sometimes morally questionable decisions.
The real villain in the piece, if there is one, may be Torvald, who perpetually infantilizes Nora as "his little skylark," his "squirrel" or — in a reference that literally drew gasps from the opening night crowd — his "most precious possession."
Here again, though, Klassen succeeds in pulling Torvald back from the brink of hiss-worthy villainy with a performance that makes him real, if not especially likable.
And Eric Blais brings some darkly comic laughs to the production with his turn as the Helmers' morose friend, Dr. Rank.
When A Doll's House premiered, it was Nora's gradual emancipation and the play's famous ending — the door slam that "reverberated across the roof of the world," according to one critic — that horrified some audiences.
Now, it's Torvald's condescending treatment of Nora — and the notion of a woman trapped, like a doll, in her house — that shock us, and give A Doll's House its continuing resonance and relevance.
A Doll's House runs at the Royal MTC's Tom Hendry Warehouse until Feb. 16. Ibsenfest productions run at venues around the city until Feb. 17, followed by the Royal MTC's Mainstage production of A Doll's House, Part 2.