I was hugely excited to have the chance to see this production of ‘A Doll’s House’ by Henrik Ibsen, as I have vivid memories of reading this play when I was fourteen in a National 5 English class (the Scottish GCSE equivalent, for anyone who is unfamiliar), and finding it a refreshing change to the never-ending deluge of Shakespeare that had been shoved down our throats up until that point. In all seriousness though, I remember being struck by the play’s powerful message of female empowerment that was ahead of its time, given that it was published in the late nineteenth century.
The crux of the plot revolves around Nora Helmer’s realisation that she has been controlled her entire life, first by her father and then by her husband, Torvald. In order to pay for a trip to Italy to save her sick husband’s life, Nora borrowed money from Krogstad, a man of ill-repute, after forging her father’s signature. Initially, Nora is not troubled by her dishonesty; she and her husband are comfortable financially, and she is content with her role as an attentive housewife. But when Torvald becomes aware of her fraud, she is forced to re-evaluate her marriage.
Given that the majority of the action is situated in the Helmers’ living room, the small and intimate setting of the Barron was perfect for this production. Director Charles Vivian and producer Alice Rickless did a great job in casting, as every actor shone in their role, and costumer Alex Rive excelled at dressing the cast in period outfits. With stripped-back tech and a fixed set throughout, the onus was really on the actors to deliver the show. They achieved that with flying colours.
Fiona McNevin’s Nora was impressive. She fulfilled the difficult task of portraying Nora’s multifarious character traits: simple-minded and content with the boundaries society has imposed on her at the beginning, emotional and overwhelmed by her predicament during the bulk of the play, and resolute in her decision to walk out of the family home by the end. Sam Gray was superlative as Torvald; he exuded self-righteousness and arrogance throughout, and both he and McNevin had marvelous on-stage intensity which came to the fore during their high-octane exchanges in the closing scenes. Fran Ash was similarly exemplary as Nora’s compassionate yet level-headed confidant, Mrs Linde; Issy Cory was suitably attentive and caring as the maid Anne-Marie; and Liam Smith captured the menacing nature of Krogstad. Sebastian Durfee’s energy and enthusiasm as Dr. Rank provided a nice contrast to the heavier, more serious scenes, and McNevin’s panicked facial expressions while dancing the Tarantella made me and many other audience members chuckle. Another highlight was the door slam sound effect that punctuated Nora’s exit at the end as it heightened the drama in a way that I very much appreciated. On the whole, it should be said that the performance was seamless. Opening night nerves? Not a chance.
As a reviewer, one often feels that one’s duty is to find some fault with the show, even if it is minuscule, but I genuinely cannot pinpoint any one thing that stood out as a detractor from the overall performance. Perhaps you could say the interpretation of the text was somewhat predictable – there was nothing totally unexpected, no unusual twists or reinventions. But that’s what made it so enjoyable. It would have been unnecessary to tweak this classic text; the real challenge was to execute the script’s nuances and make the characters and their relationships feel natural. The magic of this play is that Nora’s struggle is still as relatable as ever, and Vivian’s directorial vision emphasised this central concern excellently. The cast and crew should be immensely proud of their efforts – it was Mermaids’ last show of the decade, and they could not have gone out on more of a high!