Ibsen's A Doll's House - Gillian Anderson (Donmar 16/7/09) 18 July 2009

I really like Ibsen. To date I've seen The Master Builder with Patrick Stewart (loved it), Pillars of the Community with Damien Lewis (loved it), Enemy of the People with Ian McKellen (didn't really impress), Rosmersholm with Helen McCrory aka Mrs Damien Lewis (didn't impress) and Brand with Ralph Fiennes (also didn't impress). So that's three to two against. Maybe I was a little quick with my praise for Ibsen, or it could have been the problems were the productions and not the plays.

There are two additions to that list, or possibly just one. I've seen two pseudo-Ibsen's so I will consider each as a half production. The first was Mrs Affleck by Samuel Adamson from Henrik Ibsen's Little Eyolf at the National and most recent, Ibsen's A Doll's House in a new version by Zinnie Harris at the Donmar. A 'new version'. Hmmm. That's a strange concept for a play. I think it's valid to update or adapt a play - pulling out various aspects to make an older piece more relevant to a contemporary audience, putting emphasis on other aspects that sometimes get lost in other productions - but to rewrite someone elses work, put your name on it and retain the original title is just a bit - rude.

Going back to Mrs Affleck. That was a disaster. I never saw Little Eyolf so I had nothing to compare it to but as a stand alone piece of work, it was pretty bad. The Director, Marianne Elliott, was there the night I saw it and from her expressions (this was the end of the run) she wasn't too impressed either (by the way, she also directed the Pillars of the Community I mentioned above). At least they retitled the play which is not the case with A Doll's House.

Again, I've never seen A Doll's House so there was nothing to compare it to. I read that it was not faithful at all to the source material, with characters missing or rewritten as well as the dialogue being stripped of its poetry. Without a comparison to the original I wouldn't have realised this but knowing made me think how unfair it is to Henrik Ibsen and his art. Mr Ibsen worked hard to invent characters, situations, dialogue and a story that would serve his message. A Doll's House is his work from top to bottom so you can't have a 'new version' unless you were Henrik Ibsen. You can have a new play 'based' on A Doll's House with a different title but calling your new version Ibsen's A Doll's House doesn't make sense (maybe if you were a conceptual artist making a statement about...). Enough of the soap box and on to the play.

For those who know the play I'll give you this one major rewrite - the setting has been changed from late 1800's Norway to Edwardian London 1909. For the rest who aren't familiar with the story here it is in a nutshell:

There's a woman Nora (Gillian Anderson) who is married to Thomas (Toby Stephens) and together they have two young children. Also involved in the story is Nora's old school friend Christine Lyle (Tara Fitzgerald) who comes to work for Thomas after the death of her husband left her destitute. Rounding out the homestead is family friend Dr Rank (Anton Lesser). Thomas is involved in politics and there seems to have been a problem with a struggle for power and standing with Neil Kelmann (Christopher Eccleston) who in turn has a past and present with both Nora and Christine. Nora has been very cunning in keeping her family ticking along and the main storyline concerns her keeping how she has done this from her husband. Of course there are other bits and pieces but that's basically the story.

As with all Donmar productions, the production is intimate, the sets and costumes are good and there is never the sense of reaching for more than the space will allow. However, ensuring all the actors were being seen from all three sides (the stage is a mini thrust) was a problem. From where I was sitting I saw most of Christopher Eccleston's performance via the back of his head.

I loved seeing this for one main reason - Gillian Anderson. She was phenomenal. I was very much taken aback. From her very first scene until her final minute, she was Nora. Every nuance, movement and vocal inflection was very much in keeping with the moment. I never once thought 'oh, it's Gillian Anderson'. It was always Nora. She made you care about her and her plight. I think that is very rare. She owned her performance and she commanded the stage. You couldn't stop watching her and this was also a problem with the production.

With the exception of Tara Fitzgerald, who was excellent as well, the other actors seemed very stilted next to Ms Anderson's pitch perfect performance. I discussed this issue with a friend who was with me at the performance. I attribute the jarring differences to the variances in how actors are trained. Here is my theory. The majority of what we see on stage in the UK is a direct result of very formal acting training. Although much revered throughout the world and having turned out some amazing actors, UK training is missing something. I would call it 'true emotion'. On the other hand US actors as we all know favour The Method which has been much maligned and misunderstood. The Method is fundamentally a connection with the characters emotions to ensure a truthful portrayal, truthful to both the characters emotions and reactions to surroundings, situations and other characters. However, what alot of US actors are missing is technique, especially stage technique which the UK has in spades.

I think of the most famous and respected UK actors as having a balance of both. This could be a result of their training mixed with pure instinct and talent or training mixed with having done a good amount of US films. On the other side of the pond, formal training, at least for the stage, is not as widespread or required as here in the UK. There is more of a reliance on Method to get you through. My favourite performances come from actors who combine both. Gillian Anderson combines both and I think it's because of her transatlantic career. The other actors in A Doll's House seemed to be doing what they should do as an actor as opposed to what they feel they should do, if that makes sense. It's not that they were bad, but it was a weird juxtapostion.

One final word about the 'version'. I'm not entirely sure if the stories are clearer in the original version but I wasn't following a few details, like Thomas' political situation and there is another coming together of two estranged people where I thought I had missed the backstory. I asked my friend and it was confirmed that I didn't miss it. I guess I was thinking it was more complicated. Although the play had some light funny moments, especially between the two women, there were times when I wasn't sure if the lines were supposed to be funny (the audience laughed) or they weren't supposed to be funny but the actors decided that they would deliver them that way because they were so ridiculous. And they were ridiculous. Example - one character proclaims their love for another. One asks the other to move in with them. The response was (sic) "will there be enough room for my children?", response (sic) "we may have to get more chairs". The chairs thing was also mentioned as they parted. Oh well. So much for new versions. But, thanks so much for Gillian Anderson's performance. I'll be seeing the next thing she's in.