A Doll’s House – Bedlam Theatre

Written by Henrik Ibsen

Directed by Josie Rose Embleton

Produced by Hannah Lacaille

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Christmas. And things surely couldn’t be any better in the Helmer household.

The luxuries of life at the fingertips of a mother, and a wife; whether it’s macarons or champagne suppers, if Nora Helmer desires the whims of fancy – they are hers. Bliss without a care to be found – everything in this tidy house is picturesque, posed to perfection, artificial, false. All this little songbird must do is toe the line, raise her children, and leave financial decisions and activities to the men in her life.

And for a significant portion of contemporary history – this was the line fed to many women; to reject this was an outrageous stir of the dynamics of the ‘civilised’ world. To forge a life of autonomy and seek a self-responsive and fulfilling life within, but not with, a male-dominated world was outside of the everyday means of possibility.

Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House resonates beyond the theatrical world – as a small piece in the grand movement which would pry the door open for identifying greater freedoms, acknowledgements, and levelling of the status quo. It is unquestionably a hegemonic text – one driven into the minds of dramatic and literature students from a young age, but one which never blossoms in understanding until a little later. There’s a reason this is one of the world’s most performed texts. And it’s one which many a production has taken upon, only to find themselves in over their heads.

Bedlam Theatre’s latest fully-fledged production is not one of these companies.

The degree of understanding director Josie Rose Embleton imbues within their production is of a significant quality – not only through performance and interpretation of Ibsen’s work but in the craft and staging. The story of a woman coming to the realisation of how limited her life has been, and her autonomy has been passed from father to husband is told tremendously well through this production’s lead cast.  

Lucy Melrose, previously seen taking on the American classic All My Sons in a thunderously complex role as matriarch Kate, returns to Bedlam providing the lead role as Nora. But there’s a rich nuance for Melrose to work with, and a much tighter sense of characterisation and a significant dimension of evolution – rather than gradual descent. Where Kate’s world crashed around her despite her desperation, for Nora, the slamming of this door is the opening of a new chapter. Melrose, paradoxically in a text concerning a woman’s lacking autonomy, has complete control of the stage – and manages to portray the drip of realisation, without stripping away Nora’s relatability and character appeal.

Vast levels of realisation and the agony of acceptance come over within Melrose’s gaze, grasping Embleton’s direction and understanding the importance of immersing the audience. Equally, Benny Harrison works within a 360-degree scope, ensuring to move around the stage and project throughout – but without coming over as intrusive. The back and forth he shares with Melrose are uncomfortable, fitting for the script, working to pinpoint faults in the system, and her husband Torvald, played by Gabriel Rogers with a stern, reserved authority. 

With a staging concept that pushes the audience as far into the Doll’s House motif as they can be, it’s a vastly gutsy gamble which pays off terrifically. It enables cast members the luxury of a whisper, or stolen glance and touch; close enough to the audience to ensure its visibility. It’s put to great use by Phee Simpson’s Kristine, Nora’s school-age friend returning after the death of her husband, left without children or money, Simpson doesn’t allow Kristine to slot too neatly into an archetype of the period but still conveys the graveness of the situation, and works as both a fear for Nora of what life could become and a reinforcement of her inevitable decision.

Not entirely the fault of direction, the third Act of Iben’s play has always felt the more sluggish in momentum – siphoning off the energy which has been building throughout, paying off with a soupcon of dramatic pathos, but let down by the exposition. What aids here is the inclusion of both video projection and Saskia Rista-Brettler’s choreography leading into the finale as Nora’s final Tarantella spirals in and out of control, a metaphorical cleansing of sorts leaves her mind ready for the journey ahead, for the most wonderful thing of all; something her current husband cannot give her. 

A Doll’s House, despite its prestige, is not an easy show to stage. Too simplistic, and the gravitas is undervalued; too grandeur and narrative merits weaken. This Bedlam production possesses lashings of innate performances that grasp not only the aged text but also the contemporary nature of elements – drawing them to the forefront with creative lighting, projection, and immersive staging. Where the limitations of Ibsen’s script arise, the cast and crew largely fend-off issues with pacing, keeping the production to a tight schedule. It understands that despite the male-heavy cast and powerful elements, this is Nora’s story. This is Kristine’s story. This was a new chapter for representation – and they’ve successfully captured a continuation of that. 

A Production of Significant Quality

For further information regarding What’s On at the Bedlam Theatre, please visit their website here.

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