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Review: Updated take on Ibsen classic has fresh new meaning in T.O. (Includes first-hand account)

A Doll’s House is Ibsen’s way-ahead-of-its-time drama about a sheltered housewife, Nora Helmer, who lives only to please her patriarchal banker husband, Torvald. She lives blissfully unaware of the limits of her situation until one of Torvald’s employees, Nils Krogstad, blackmails her into trying to persuade her husband to save Krogstad’s job one Christmas Eve. After some desperate attempts to keep Torvald from finding out the full truth about the scheme — warning: one-hundred-and-thirty-seven-year-old spoiler alert – Nora realizes that her marriage is a sham and abandons Torvald and their children at the end.

So what makes Soulpepper’s current production, directed by Canuck stage veteran Daniel Brooks and starring Katherine Gauthier, seem so fresh? It’s the way Brooks modernizes the story by putting the Helmers in a contemporary urban condo, with Torvald in Bay Street-style suits and Nora in casual home lounging wear. That may not sound like a big deal (directors put Shakespeare plays and other classics in modern settings all the time) until you realize how it reverses the approach to Ibsen’s feminist themes.

When A Doll’s House first premiered in Europe in the nineteenth century, the ending was scandalous and controversial to many; bourgeois housewives just didn’t do that. In Brooks’ modern treatment, Nora’s moment of clarity seems so inevitable that you wonder why she hasn’t left her creep of a husband much sooner. But Torvald’s domineering, patronizing treatment of Nora throughout the play (calling her “my songbird” and “my little spendthrift” while criticizing her as a parent would playfully scold an ignorant child), which likely didn’t even raise an eyebrow in 1879, comes off as jarring and grotesque in Soulpepper’s version, set in a day and age when we’re supposed to be more enlightened about gender equality (at least, we like to think we are).

And Gauthier’s Nora is particularly childlike and hyper – pacing and running around the apartment in fits of worry and indecision, throwing tantrums, committing fully to a hide-and-seek game with her children while hiding forbidden candies from Torvald, responding to her husband’s teasing like a giggling toddler. You almost wonder if Nora actually has obsessive-compulsive disorder or mania of some kind. Her grinning response to her friend Kristine’s malaise – “Why don’t you go for a holiday?” – betrays a wealth of naïveté and privilege too. But Gauthier still makes Nora’s transformation from childish waif to enlightened modern woman convincing and sympathetic. When she mutters, “Everything you do is right” to her husband later on, it sounds as if she’s desperate to convince herself more than anything.

As played by Christopher Morris, Torvald is a sleazy, overconfident yuppie whose most prized material possession is his wife; he’s a horny puppet master who manipulates her with condescension and flattery. At one point, he even grabs her attention by pulling out a dollar bill and waving it in front of her, as if teasing a dog with a chew toy. He also plays with Nora’s arms as if she’s a doll when demonstrating the difference between sewing and knitting. Once he loses his power over her, though, he turns into a whiny, pouting, crying brat, exposing himself as the deluded man-baby he really is.

There are good supporting performances by Diego Matamoros, who imbues good-humoured self-deprecation into ailing family friend Dr. Rank, and Oyin Oladejo as Kristine Linde, Nora’s more worldly childhood friend who also has a past history with Krogstad. As the only character who sees behind the façade of the Helmers’ relationship, Oladejo fills the part with intelligence, compassion and an aura of life experience; when she tells Nora that she’s like a child, or that “you know so little of how difficult life can be,” it comes off not as a rebuke, but as a warm kind of tough love. Damien Atkins is fine as Krogstad, depicted here as an unshaven, shady fellow with little respect for scruples when he’s in a pinch; Atkins exudes just enough desperation and loneliness to make you see him as a man driven to unethical actions by circumstance, rather than as selfish by nature.

Frank McGuinness’ 1996 translation of Ibsen’s original Norwegian text mostly works well, with dialogue that sounds very contemporary and believable, if verbose at times and with the occasional f-bomb tossed in for good measure. There are a few exceptions – Nora’s repeated line about having “pots and pots of money” after Torvald’s upcoming promotion sounds weird, and her wish for some kind of miracle to save her from humiliation is stated vaguely as “something glorious.” Otherwise, you may as well be hearing original English dialogue written this year.

It may be hard for some modern playgoers to understand why Nora’s final actions were seen as radical and shocking once. But Brooks’ update opens Ibsen’s play to new interpretations that speak more about marriage and male-female relations in the modern world. Perhaps A Doll’s House today is more about Torvald’s tragedy than Nora’s escape, or maybe it exposes marriage in general as an outdated institution. Whatever you make of it, Soulpepper’s production will keep you thinking and talking after Nora’s famous final door slam.

A Doll’s House runs at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto until August 27.

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