A Doll's House by Theatrical Niche
Mr and Mrs Helmer are the iconic power couple. They excel at work, staying on top, socialising. They excel at excelling. But all is not as it seems. Theatrical Niche's adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's classic play focuses on the impossible idolisation of one 'perfect' woman, by a man who walk around with weights around his ankles.
Having worked with some of the UK's leading mental health charities for this artful adaptation, Theatrical Nice use verbatim interviews and emotive choreography to give this production a resoundingly contemporary voice. We spoke to the company's director, Venetia Twigg.
What's different about this adaptation?
'A Doll's House' is widely known as the first feminist play, but I've always been interested in where Torvald (the male lead) is coming from too. Why does Nora need to borrow money in order to cover up his murky past? Why does he feel the need to control her in the way that he does? So, approaching it with a modern stance, we've asked how we would relate to all this behaviour now - and set the play in London at Christmas time in 2017. We have adapted the text (and context) to fit with recent goings-on, and spoken to some incredible interviewees, meaning that we were able to book-end each act with verbatim theatre - true tales of the struggles and stigmas surrounding mental health and what it's like to be on the receiving end of emotional abuse, and/or controlling behaviour.
In terms of how we've approach this artistically, we use physical theatre to depict a feeling of manipulation (from physical & mental forces), and are choreographing a physical response to the verbatim, which gently feeds through the main text of the show, echoing the parallels that we find between the stories throughout.
We have preserved the essence (and main bulk of each character's storyline) from Ibsen's work, whilst at the same time making the story accessible. By adding the verbatim, we move from the smaller focus of the Helmer household out to our current wider society, where instances of controlling behaviour and battles with mental health take place daily around us, perhaps without ever being spoken about or noticed. In this way, we didn't want to label either Torvald or Nora, but to talk around the circumstances and behaviour patterns they find themselves in, continuing to open up the conversation.
Myself and Alice Knapton have worked hard to combine the text and the verbatim interviews, in order to reach a script that tells the particular story of this family, whilst illuminating so many other parallel stories at the same time. Hopefully, we ask the audience some questions about how we both perceive and tackle these issues in 2018. During rehearsals, our director Alice Sillett worked with all the actors to build rich timelines and back-stories for each character, thinking about how outside circumstances (such as the financial crash of 2008) may have led to certain decisions. It's all about re-building Ibsen's story now - how things have changed, and how sadly, much hasn't.
You've worked with leading UK Mental Health charities when exploring the themes of the play. How and why did you do this?
We started from a point of wanting to know why the male lead struggles so much but also wanting to understand what it's like to be 'Nora' in 2018. So, we contacted Heads Together, who kindly put us in touch with the wonderful Jonny Benjamin MBE and Neil Laybourn, and they were the first to give interviews (which we recorded) about Jonny's struggle with his own mental health, and how Neil helped him through that (after the initial incident at Waterloo Bridge). We then opened up the search for further male and female interviewees to talk about their mental health issues and collected some incredibly insightful viewpoints from that side of things.
We also spoke with DAVSS in Tunbridge Wells, and Survivors of Abuse (both Kent-based charities), in order to find the brave souls who wanted to tell their stories about living in abusive or controlling relationships, and how they escaped those situations. We cannot express how grateful we are for every single interviewee who shared their stories with us.
MIND and CALM have provided us with script guidance (mainly on how to approach the subject of suicide and its contemplation),and we will be taking it in turns to collect for these charities as audiences exit. We've also had support from RISE, Safe Lives and the Mankind Initiative, so all-in-all we've been extremely fortunate. We hope that by giving information at the shows, and approaching these subjects within the production itself, we can reach a few people out there who need help, and at the very least raise awareness.
See A Doll's House at Tara Theatre on Thursday 3 and Friday 4 May at 7.30pm
Book here: tara-arts.com/whats-on/a-dolls-house
This event is part of 'I'll Say It Again! A season of work by women artists'. This is a month-long festival of events including theatre, music, poetry and dance, celebrating the centenary of women's suffrage in the UK.