Left – Nikki Shiels. Photo – Marg Horwell
Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll's House instantly reminds us of the clarity of Ibsen’s insight. Nora’s story resonates immediately, rubbing uncomfortably against our middle-class somewhat dog-eared notions of progress and equality.
Director Daniel Schlusser’s production of Ibsen’s modern classic was first performed in 2007 with students at the Victorian College of the Arts. Now, more forthrightly prefaced with the preposition ‘The’, this production seems to stand as a bold assertion of Schlusser’s vision and ‘new approach’ of – and to – ‘hyper-realism’. As he suggests, he has ramped up his aggressive approach to theatricality, assaulting his audience with our continuing submission to patriarchal power, presenting us with mere, ‘animals cloaked in civility.’
Schlusser suggests that Nora (Nikki Shiels), ‘can be recognised on the streets of Melbourne, in our daily lives, but also [that] her dilemma is one shared by all of us.’ On the surface, she is a ‘yummy mummy’ who flounces around in bum-skimming dresses, and seeks to please her man in any way possible. But as the production progresses, she is stripped to reveal a woman broken and battered, unable to escape, perhaps, her own animalistic instincts. The audience is confronted with a messy vision of human animals under pressure, which all of the actors throw themselves into with enthusiasm and conviction.
Schlusser’s direction employs a thrusting hyper-realism combined with Brecht’s alienation effect in an attempt to shock and jolt, as Alison Croggon describes, ‘Schlusser’s intention is to recapture Ibsen’s original radicalism.’ And yes, perhaps the naturalism that redefined Ibsen’s time is arguably too familiar to modern ears and eyes to truly make us think and reflect. Our obsession with television and film has saturated the medium and its form. However, I was left unconvinced that hyper-realism has the ability to make us think or feel something more. The portrayal of Nora reminded me of someone I might read about in a magazine, Famous perhaps, a story of another celebrity train-wreck nurtured by the media to amuse and entertain. What I felt I needed to see was a Nora that rubbed a little closer to the bone, a Nora who may have been sitting in the audience.
In his interview with Australian Stage, when asked about his choice of set and location – a modern warehouse apartment – Schlusser said, ‘Let’s admit it: all Melburnians, regardless of class, want to live in a warehouse conversion.” Hah – I found this comment to be so funny and true. I felt a pang of embarrassment and discomfort at my own little warehouse conversion dream laid bare in a director’s vision. This feeling of discomforting closeness and knowing, is what I think the audience needed to be pushed to feel, pushed to confront rather than laugh at in the production. Or maybe we needed to laugh at it as well – when Dr Rank (Josh Price) replies that he runs ‘workshops’ when asked what sort of doctor he is, we laugh out loud at ourselves and our middle-class society.
I had this strange feeling at the end of the production, too. Interestingly, Schlusser decided to embrace Ibsen’s alternate ending for the play, in which Nora does not leave but instead is baited back with her own child held in Torvald’s arms. The image of the young child in and amongst the mess of our consumer excess, after having seen Nora fracture under the pressure of our trashy female stereotypes, challenged my critiques of the production and its characters. I felt a softening, a sense of needing to protect the child – the very feeling I assume Nora would need to feel in order to subordinate her own needs.
Schlusser’s production is bold and brash, his direction intelligent. For me, the moments of discomfort I felt needed to be intensified and multiplied for full effect. And yet, as I have been writing I have been forced to confront my own critiques and the preconceived notions on which they are based. Perhaps, this production was truly successful in its intent – an at times offensive and assaulting interpretation of a modern classic which makes us question our civility.
by Henrik Ibsen
Directed by Daniel Schlusser
Venue: fortyfivedownstairs | 45 Flinders Lane, Melbourne
Dates: 15 – 25 September, 2011
Tickets: Full $40, Conc $25
Bookings: 03 9662 9966