If you belong to the young British Star of the Month Club and have not sent in your card, the April selection is Janet McTeer, who plays Nora in Ibsen's "A Doll's House."
Despite "Stanley," I knew how good the February YBSOMC selection, Antony Sher, was, because I had seen him years ago in "Richard III."
The current selection is harder to judge because of her packaging, in an adaptation of Ibsen by Frank McGuinness, author of the unprepossessing "Someone Who'll Watch Over Me."
McTeer's Nora is busy, busy, busy. This helps us understand the energy she must expend to maintain her facade as her husband Torvald's plaything, but it can easily be construed as an actress doing a "star turn."
Early on, we get a lot of nervous laughter and little squeals, which soon seems very mannered.
McTeer makes Nora sexier than usual, but I'm not sure this is helpful. When, for example, she flirts with Torvald's closest friend, Dr. Rank, to enlist his aid, she teases him with some silk stockings. Until I checked the text, I was sure it was an addition.
It is indeed in the original, but it is seldom done so brazenly. It reveals Nora's desperation, but it makes it hard to believe she has spent her whole life meekly knuckling under to convention. Moreover, the scenes between Nora and Dr. Rank seem to have been abridged, which robs them of subtlety (a pity, since John Carlisle, who plays Rank, is a powerful actor).
When she finally decides to break with Torvald, McTeer's turnaround is also heavy-handed. Owen Teale, who plays Torvald, has a few times shown a fearsome temper we sense that men, too, had to control their emotions in this repressive culture. When McTeer unleashes Nora's temper, it is even more fearsome.
She also laces her final speeches with great indignation and sanctimony, as if rehearsing what she will say later on to a consciousness-raising group in downtown Oslo. (The only actress I have seen who avoided this obvious pitfall was Liv Ullmann, who made us feel Nora's own nervousness as she embarks on a very uncertain journey.)
The supporting cast is first-rate, especially Carlisle, Jan Maxwell as Nora's friend Kristine, and Peter Gowen as everybody's childhood friend, the disgraced Krogstad.
As Torvald, Teale is solid if occasionally artificial.
The sets and costumes are intelligently, artfully designed, and the play moves with greater force than it normally does.
I wouldn't mind if YBSOMC sent us McTeer again, but her efforts here seem too strenuous for the play.
Don’t on any account miss Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House,” which opened at the Belasco Theater last night in a brilliantly alive version adapted by Frank McGuinnes, staged by Anthony Page, and illuminated by two effortlessly sublime performances by Janet McTeer and Owen Teale.
The British theater has become extraordinarily adroit and adept at what might be called dramatic picture-colroing.
Many of it’s best directors can take an established play, and by seemingly little more than a close scrutiny of the actual text, apparently reinvent it, so it’s colors, and meaning, emerge as fresh as first printed.
Most English-language productions manage to get “A Doll’s House” wrong because knowingly, or probably unknowingly, they are still influenced by Bernard Shaw’s astonishingly obtuse “The Quietness of Ibsenism,” and Shaw considered it primarily a feminist tract, when it was really no such thing.
It was based on a true incident. A women acquaintance of Ibsen borrowed a sizable sum of money to take her husband to Italy as a cure for his tuberculosis. When the debt came due, hoping for a large advance, she tried to write a novel, which Ibsen himself advised her to tear up.
She did, but then forged a check—and on discovery, her husband, far from standing by her, had her committed temporarily to a lunatic asylum!
On hearing this story, Ibsen promptly started to write “A Doll’s House”—much to the poor woman’s eventual embarrassment—but the play itself, despite Shaw, is not really to do with women’s rights, although it recognizes the folly and unfairness of women having to function in a man’s world. Yet essentially “A Doll’s House” echoes the theme which underlies most of Ibsen’s work, the importance of being true to yourself, whatever it appears to cost.
When Ibsen’s heroine, Nora, leaves her husband and children, it is no political act. She has simply, and suddenly, realized that her entire life is a lie—and when, deserting her family, she slams that infamously famous outside front door she is merely trying to seek the truth about herself.
This production, which comes from a considerable success in London’s West End, completely realizes this, and Nora, instead of being played, as she customarily is, as some kind of goody-goody crypto-suffragette, is gloriously apolitical, a ditsy flirt caught up in a life which, if partly of her making, is not of her choice.
Page’s direction makes the whole play fascinating and, above all, coherent. He has been vastly helped by Guinness’ adaptation, which while not diverging from the previous literal translations, is extremely supple and lifelike, and then, of course, he has acquired a perfectly judged cast.
McTeer, who from London I recall best as a sprightly Titania and a wonderfully spirited Beatrice against Mark Rylance’s Benedick, makes a magnificent Broadway debut. This Nora starts off as skittish, even arch, and giggly—she must offer 57 varieties of giggles.
But as reality intrudes, so McTeer weaves us into her web, showing us her piteous heroism and a courage all the more remarkable for her suggestion of knowing if could be self-destructive.
And Teale is no less impressive. His pomposity and hypocrisy are perfectly in place, but there is also a glint of something like decency and a wild sexual passion which is not entirely self-seeking.
John Carlisle proves gallantly gloomy as the doomed Dr. Rank, Peter Gowen negotiates the difficult role of the blackmailing Krogstad with uncanny sensibility, and Jan Maxwell, the one newcomer to the London team of principals, does admiringly with the ambivalence of Nora’s childhood friend, Kristine.
What is so enticing and even miraculous—I cared for neither the dowdy designs nor the melodramatic lighting, incidentally—about the whole is the manner in which Page and his actors draw you into the Ibsen/McGuinness text, and into this vivid reading of the play which at first seems so different, but finally feels so right.
It just doesn't happen that often, and when it does, you sit there, open-mouthed, grateful, admiring and shaken, and think, ''This is why I love the theater.''
It's the response that comes when a dramatic performance is so completely and richly realized that you find yourself truly living through the character portrayed onstage, even when you want to pull back to a comfortable spectator's distance. The pulse quickens, the eyes well. And there is somehow the sense that ordinary life has been heightened to the bursting point.
The occasion for this revelation is the new production of Ibsen's ''Doll's House,'' a London import that opened last night at the Belasco Theater. The name of the revelation is Janet McTeer, an actress, little known in America, whose apparition on Broadway suggests the theater's timely answer to the Hale-Bopp comet.
What Ms. McTeer achieves, with the magnificent support of the director Anthony Page and a flawless supporting cast, is the sense that the landmark, century-old role of Ibsen's Nora Helmer, the childlike housewife who comes so painfully of age, was only just written, and written specifically for her. You may think you know ''A Doll's House'' inside out. This production is guaranteed to prove you wrong.
The 1879 classic, with its iconoclastic portrayal of a woman who leaves her marriage to find herself, assumed an instant, thundering social significance and that has clouded perceptions of the play. There was a theory, starting with George Bernard Shaw, that the drama's greatness was more historical than artistic, and that, like most things searingly topical, it was destined to become a fossil.
Still, the play has never left the international repertory, with great actresses repeatedly drawn to Nora like the proverbial moths to the flame. Very often, they have indeed been burned, provoking criticism that Nora's conversion from domestic plaything to proto-feminist requires radical jumps in psychological continuity, accompanied by the creaking of a mechanical, agenda-driven plot.
Not a single creak is heard in Mr. Page's production, Ms. McTeer's performance or Frank McGuinness's wonderfully loose-limbed adaptation. They never impose on Ibsen's text but instead mine it for an emotional consistency and logic that is very definitely there. And marvel of marvels, the most stirring part of this interpretation comes in its last 20 minutes, when Nora speaks the lines that, out of context, have become feminist rallying cries.
Ms. McTeer's Nora, confronting her husband, Torvald (the masterly Owen Teale), with the failure of their marriage, is no coolly articulate visionary, for whom a light has suddenly been turned on after a lifetime of benightedness. She is still fumbling in the dark, still struggling to find words to match her growing belief that something is very, very wrong. She seems surprised, in fact, by her own perceptions, as if they were only just taking form in her consciousness.
The entire evening builds carefully to this moment in ways you are aware of only after you've arrived there.
From the outset, Ms. McTeer's performance has suggested a struggle between willful self-delusion and a subterranean uneasiness that Nora reflexively works to suppress. She's a hard-working actress who doesn't even know she's playing a part or how tired she has grown of it.
Ms. McTeer starts off with a mannered intensity some audience members may at first find grating. There's a glow of fever about Nora as she busily trims her comfortably appointed living room for Christmas. The laughter with which she punctuates her speech has a loonlike quality; she tries on different, silly voices like an eager-to-please comedian; she flaps her wrists in a way that dismisses what she's saying even as she calls attention to it.
It is a brave, risky conception that even comes across as grotesque at moments, a feeling underscored by the fact that Ms. McTeer is no doll-size ingenue but a woman of towering height and erotic presence. (She compliantly bends her knees for her long, frequent kisses with Torvald.) She's a fluttery geisha in overdrive, on call to entertain and make merry whenever her husband chooses to appear from his invincible fortress of a study.
What cannot be doubted is that Nora behaves like this out of love for the man she married. It's the same impulse that drove her to commit the criminal act -- the forging of her father's signature when she needed to borrow money to take her ailing husband to Italy -- that provides the play with its plot. And this production ingeniously melds Nora's apprehension about being exposed by the embittered money lender Nils Krogstad (Peter Gowen) with the encroaching awareness that her love for Torvald, the center of her existence, is built on sand.
There are moments throughout, especially in Nora's scenes with her childhood friend Kristine Linde (Jan Maxwell) and her cynical admirer, Dr. Rank (John Carlisle), when shafts of light break into the doll's house, a sense of how hard and unfair the world can be and of the imbalance in the Helmers' marriage.
The scene when, in conversation with Dr. Rank, Nora realizes that her relationship with her husband is like that she had with her doting father, is remarkable both for how the perception astonishes her and for how she seems to brush it away. So when the play reaches its climax, it feels less like an abrupt turn than the inevitable end of a single, well-paved road.
Mr. Page, best known here for his productions of ''Heartbreak House'' (with Rex Harrison and Rosemary Harris) and ''Inadmissible Evidence'' (with Nicol Williamson), reminds you of the virtues of pure naturalism in theater. There's a ripe physicality to the production, an awareness of the comforts of the warmth of home and clothing (deliciously embodied by Deirdre Clancy's set and costumes) and of the literal coldness outside. (This is the first production of ''A Doll's House'' I've seen in which, when Nora makes her famous final exit, I worried whether she was dressed warmly enough.)
There is a definite sensual heat as well. It's apparent in the coded, tantalizing body language between Nora and Helmer; in the hungry kisses stolen by Kristine and Nils after they declare their love for each other; in Nora's mischievously displaying her silk stockings to the terminally ill Dr. Rank, an act that registers as one of infinite, if misplaced, kindness to a dying man; and, above all, in Ms. McTeer's dancing the tarantella as a giddy, erotic collapse into nervous exhaustion.
It is also hard to imagine a more persuasively balanced ensemble. Mr. Carlisle's flinty, troubled doctor; Ms. Maxwell's sober, pragmatic Kristine (a perfect foil to Ms. McTeer's agitation); Mr. Gowen's all-too-human, self-preserving desperation: these performances remind you that Ibsen did indeed create complete characters who are always waiting to be rediscovered.
As Torvald, the handsome, imposingly centered Mr. Teale couldn't be better. For once, you understand the magnetic hold this husband has over his wife, as well as why he is destined to lose her. His blunt air of authority is so compelling that when it finally shatters, the effect is devastating.
Nora leaves this broken man less in anger than in sorrow, a fitting conclusion to an evening infused not with polemical rage but with a sad compassion for the mess people make of their lives. The ''something glorious'' that Nora so ravenously craves, a heroic act from her husband that would redeem their marriage, doesn't happen, of course. But thanks to Ms. McTeer and company, something glorious is very definitely occurring at the Belasco.
It’s a performance, all right. It certainly is that. From the moment Janet McTeer bounds onto the Belasco Theatre stage with her overgrown wild-child ideas about Henrik Ibsen’s famous Nora, we gather this is going to be a performance—the big nervy kind that grabs attention, gets prizes and polarizes audiences. What’s more, as this overheated British “new version” of “A Doll’s House” steamrolls the seminal Victorian classic for nearly three hyperactive hours, we begin to fantasize barricades being manned and opinions being pummeled over McTeer and the production she rode in on.
With all the rhapsodic reviews from England and McTeer’s Olivier Award, we really could not have anticipated how willful, how mannered, how annoyingly over-the-top this celebrated concept would be. McTeer—a strapping six-foot talent with big hair, big flibbertigibbet gestures and big curves—gives an exhaustingly physical performance that, for the most part, tires us out more than it wins us over. Her Nora does rise to some sort of dignity in the final confrontation with her overbearing husband, Torvald (Owen Teale), but, even then, she is still wailing, wiping her nose on her arms, sucking her finger to loosen her wedding band and waving her breasts around in the 19th Century Norwegian provincial parlor.
In a Newsday interview, McTeer warned us not to expect “another Victorian drama, please.” But, please, Ibsen did not write a British bodice-ripper about an inappropriate, infantilized mad housewife who yells “bloody hell!” and becomes an unhinged hysteric before she abandons her family and doll house to find herself. How disturbing that the charismatic actress, director Anthony Page, and adapter Frank McGuinness have so little to trust in Ibsen’s restraint, in his psychological subtlety and in the wrenching power within the limitations of historical truth.
Page and company do not update the work, but there is a contemporary, improvisatory quality—a modern sense of irony and physicality –especially in McTeer’s overreactions and shrugs befitting a Valley Girl after Christmas shopping at the mall. This Nora and Torvald actually have erotic heat in their marriage, which can be a pleasure to behold, except that they are way too comfortable in their bodies to be convincing in their repressive time. Torvald limits Nora’s intake of macaroons to protect her teeth—and his control over her—and not, as the winking gestures suggest, the size of her rump. After all, they liked their women plump in 1879.
McTeer’s Nora, a handsome woman with the long blonde mane of a freer society, acts out excessive playfulness with fluttery hands, funny faces and a laugh that’s meant to indicate childish nervousness but mostly reminds us of Joanne Worley’s snorts in “Laugh-In.” Why, we wonder, do so many decent grown-ups tolerate, much less adore, a Nora who is so monstrously insensitive to their problems? Do they see character strength in her that we give up trying to find?
McTeer plays the first hours with the frenetic energy of a tarantella, which leaves her nowhere to go when Nora actually has to dance one. Her rehearsal turns into a mad scene as Torvald’s “little sky-lark” pushes furniture around like a trucker and hurtles herself sobbing to the ground. We have to agree this time with Torvald, who says her performance “was too much, too reckless. Strictly speaking, it went beyond the demands of art.”
Teale, one of the other three British actors form the original cast, plays Torvald with a Welsh accent that probably symbolizes something important we do not catch here. But he manages to make the difficult character both attractive and obnoxious, and, by the time Nora slams the door of Victorian marriage, we almost feel for his befuddlement.
The rest of the actors support the concept without seeming to lose their heads over it. Jan Maxwell has quiet class as Kristine, Nora’s less fortunate friend. Peter Gowen is unusually sympathetic as Krogstad, the crooked lawyer who will mess up Nora’s tidy house with blackmail. Perhaps best of all is John Carlisle’s Dr. Rank, so humane as he faces his mortality, so besotted by Nora’s cruel flirtations that his love becomes a recommendation to us to keep trying to find the value in her.
Deirdre Clancy’s set is a functional cozy living room of Scandinavian wood and Victorian clutter, but her costumes, while attractive, permit all Nora’s unlikely gypsy-girl-raised-by-wolves flouncing. The adaptation by McGuinness—whose “Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me” ran on Broadway several years ago—encourages the idea that Ibsen isn’t enough without some colloquial British goosing and a Nora who cries “I am a human being! I am! I am! I am!” as if auditioning for a feminist made-for-TV movie
We wish Nora well in her journey out the door to independence. But if she wants to make it as a 20th Century heroine, she ought to button her blouse.
No matter how many times you’ve seen Nora Helmer walk out on her husband in the protofeminist play “A Doll’s House,” the experience is new, raw and gut-twisting in the new Broadway revival of at the Belasco Theater.
That’s partly thanks to the extraordinary British newcomer Janet McTeer, previously known to the U.S. audiences mostly from Masterpiece Theatre. Her highly original performance is buoyed by a London-imported production, directed by Anthony Page, that revises Ibsen’s classic as a study in sexual possession. It’s easily the hottest drama so far this season.
This story of a childlike trophy wife blackmailed by an ambitious loan shark and dominated by her aging, parental, morals-obsessed husband can often seem fairly chaste. Here, they’re more the same age and sexually charged, giving the story an undercurrent that even suggests that the husband’s passion for morals (as played by the excellent Owen Teale) is fueled by hormones.
In reaction, the relentlessly cheerful Nora becomes a nymphet as part of her eagerness to please. Tall, blond, and vigorous, McTeer plays her as a reckless, rambunctious, boisterously fun tornado of energy, tossing coats and scarves every which way but always with the furtive quality of someone reining in her real self. Thus, her departure alone into the winter night seems more plausible; it would’ve happened sooner or later. Just hand her a Tony Award now.
She tends to dwarf other actors around her, though they’re mostly fine especially Peter Gowen as the loan shark who maintains just the right humble veneer as his devious plan unfolds. Purists may argue with Frank McGuinness’ English adaptation, which shades the play to suit Page’s interpretation. Still, it’s hard to argue with any means used to achieve such a gripping rendering of the play.
British actress Janet McTeer's dizzying star turn in Anthony Page's revival of Ibsen's "A Doll's House" is reason enough for this West End transfer. The production has other fine elements --- a terrific supporting cast, Page's lively direction --- but it's McTeer's mercurial spin on Nora (girlish giggles one second, an expression of dire panic the next) that brings Ibsen's 118-year-old play to such vivid stage life.
McTeer, who recently won London's Olivier Award for her West End perf of the role, carefully charts Nora's evolution from a pampered little "skylark" who knows "so little of how difficult life can be" to a woman of towering independence willing to risk everything she loves for the sake of freedom. Both McTeer and director Page understand that such a transformation is credible only if Nora's strength, however latent, exists from the beginning and blossoms through tragedy and pain. Watch as McTeer, early in the play, hides a sack of sweets from her disapproving husband, or uses baby talk to get her way: Small acts of subversion are merely the first steps to Nora's ultimate escape.
McTeer's risky performance --- in less talented hands it could be misconstrued as busy --- is a whirlwind. Expressions pass quickly across her face, she laughs in short, loud bursts or longer giggles, her nervous hands never rest. Nora is a panicked woman, and McTeer has such complete control over her every jitter that the performance comes across as a beautifully (and skillfully) choreographed frenzy.
What causes the panic, of course, is Nora's secret. In a small Norwegian town in 1879 (Deirdre Clancy's living room set is authentic if a bit below Broadway standards), Nora has the perfect home, a loving husband (Owen Teale) and two adorable sons (Liam Aiken, Paul Tiesler). She's thrilled that her husband's new job as a bank manager will bring more money into the household: Now she can pay off the money she covertly borrowed years ago when Torvald, her husband, was ill with tuberculosis. The ever-righteous Torvald thinks the money came from Nora's father, and would be aghast at the prospect that his good little wife dealt with a shady money-lender. On top of everything, Nora forged her father's signature to get the loan, a criminal offense.
From there, plot developments and complications twist and turn like an O. Henry short story. Nora's old friend Kristine (Jan Maxwell) arrives seeking a bank job from Torvald, who offers her the position that will be open once he fires a corrupt employee named Krogstad (Peter Gowen). That employee, of course, is the money-lender who can expose Nora's shameful secret. The play essentially chronicles Nora's breakdown as the truth and its consequences gets closer and closer.
Given what today's audiences might see as a crime of little import, productions of "A Doll's House" must first and foremost convince that everything Nora loves, indeed even her life, is at stake should her secret be revealed. And here again, McTeer triumphs in showing how deep Nora's pain and fear go. In one flawlessly directed scene she dances the tarantella to distract her husband from the ominous letter that reveals her secret, the dance building in tension and pace as Nora's hysteria mounts.
Page also paces the production by reducing the voltage of the rest of the talented cast, with Maxwell giving a wonderfully restrained perf as the long-lost friend all but defeated by hardship. As Nora's smug, overbearing husband, Teale captures the vanity and even malice of a man who uses love as a prison: His endearments (he calls his wife "Little Miss Stubborn Shoes") are as demeaning as they are dismissive.
Rounding out the good cast is an appropriately sleazy Gowen as the money-lender and John Carlisle as Nora's beloved (and dying) friend Dr. Rank.
Even at three hours, the production moves quickly, faltering only near the end when the newly emboldened Nora, having survived the revelation of her secret, confronts her husband over the inequity of their marriage. Ibsen's at his most blunt here, and Frank McGuinness' otherwise sterling translation betrays the playwright's didacticism. Page sets much of the husband-wife debate at a small table, symbolically legitimate but a bit stagnant after the quick momentum of the preceding scenes.
Written 100 years before "Kramer vs. Kramer," "A Doll's House" demands that audiences sympathize with a woman who leaves her children to find her own independence. It's a tough demand (not made easier by the two cute tykes cast as Nora's sons), and audiences, even after watching Nora's repeated humiliations for three hours, might still have a twinge of ill will for Nora when she walks out forever. Few, however, will have anything but admiration for the actress playing her.