'A Doll's House' - Review

Today (2009-05-14) Alex saw the first performance (a preview) of 'A Doll's House' with Gillian Anderson and Chris Eccleston at Donmar Warehouse and provides the following review. (Some spoilers might have sneaked in, if you've never read the play.)

The Set-up
London, 1909. Nora and Thomas have just moved house after he was promoted. They still live out of boxes and are still getting to grips with the changes. Both the house and Thomas' new political post previously belonged to Neil Kelman (Eccleston), who, despite shady accusations, will not surrender while there's still hope he and his career might be rescued.

Nora finds herself between the three men - her husband, wanting her to just play the role of a politician's wife, his property; Dr. Rank, a ghost of days past, faithful to her; Kelman, a desperate man, who eventually forces her out of the fake role-playing and empowers her to make decisions. Being looked at differently by all three of them, she must make up her mind how she looks at herself.

The Adaptation
Though the action has been transplanted to a new environment, changes aren't deep (i.e., they are functional, but not ruled by the new setting; topical, but not historical). The slightly unexpected aspect of the piece was that it is often funny, especially with Toby Stephens' (Thomas) somewhat exaggerated performance, making me think of Eddie Izzard, and comic relief moments with macaroons, heavily implying a parallel to drug addiction. Gillian Anderson was definitely impressive, being both playful and spunky, a woman who can think and dares make choices, for better or worse. Another great performance - bias or no bias - was from Eccleston.

Eccleston as Kelman
He has four scenes: short introductory and a big scene expounding the conflict between Kelman and Nora in the first act, another big one with Nora in the second and finally the scene with Christine in the third. In the first act he's sharply dressed, wears a dark suit and black coat and appears really menacing, like concentrated darkness. His smiles are cold, and his threats feel tangible.

The second act's appearance is a very obvious contrast - he comes in from the rain, unstable, perhaps intoxicated (on the second night it was more of a tragic funk), his clothes in disarray. He's physically intimidating and the energy really simmers.

The Characterisation
Replying to another review about whether Eccleston's portrayal of a politician is realistic, I realised that Kelman actually reminds of Nicky Hutchinson, idealistic in his youth, then getting corrupted by hardships of life. And Thomas who has a great dislike of his concurrent, might have his own reasons to treat Kelman like an upstart: While you can clearly picture generations of high rang politicians in Thomas' family history, Neil must have fought his way up.

Kelman, in big contrast to Nora's husband, speaks to her as to his equal, even if he threatens - he doesn't look down on her. And while he threatens, terrorises her, he's still vulnerable, because he does need her help. He doesn't shun any means, but he's a proud man, he feels that life has dealt him an unlucky hand, and he doesn't deserve the way people treat him. He still thinks of honour, and it's a juxtaposition to Thomas, who's playing a more standard family head, more flashy, more of a twat.

The Conclusion
Kelman is cracking up and distraught. Still, eventually it makes it possible for him to shed his shell, carve away the grime that has accumulated on his soul and start anew. As a concept it sounds good, but in reality it's a pity that this adaptation stayed true to the original in the end, and Kelman's final scene, with Christine, I found just as pathetic as when I read it (the main difference to, again, 'Our Friends In The North' being that Nicky's decision was personal, and had no effect on anyone else or his professional career).

The ending does no justice to Neil in my mind, because it feels like a retreat from author's side, having established this man, not without faults, but still fighting his fight and healthier thinking, sans the sleazy selfishness of Thomas, and then making him suddenly happy with unconditional love and flesh. Perhaps I shouldn't see it as a defeat, but it comes across as more cruel than having him succumb after his career is ruined.

And it does no justice to Eccleston, who otherwise fed masses of energy into his character, balancing him, and was believable and consistent throughout.

A Doll's House (May 14th & 15th): 7/10, no doubt it will find its rhythm and pace: As seen on the second night, the play is alive and started developing.
CE: 9/10.

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Debate continues with a talk-back for the critics' reviews here and a new review after seeing the play again here.

Pictures ©Donmar Warehouse


Anonymous said...

When I saw Christopher in "Night Sky" at the Old Vic in 2005 I was left with awe with his presence on stage.

When on Wednesday 17th June I saw him in "A Doll's House" he reaffirmed my belief in him that he is one of THE talents of the last two decades and continues to be so.

I concur that he has pure energies the moment he takes to the stage. He keeps you focussed never letting your eyes drop. Simply memorising.

My only wish is that he do more provincial theatre work outside London.

Stop me if I sound like am gushing!

Alex said...

Hi, powerjen51, thanks for your comment - I cannot agree more, his presence on stage is electrifying.

My wish would be that he just do more theatre, no matter where, a production that would make use of his talent and let him develop it.

Anonymous said...

Agree with you.

Christopher is simply an inspiration even though many people don't see him that way.

He gives 100% every second, every minute of every hour, 24/7/365 in his performances and there are very, very few contemporaries around to match his craft.