Mabou Mines Dollhouse

Gardens Theatre (Mabou Mines Theatre Company)


By Henrik Ibsen

Professional production

This ground-breaking staging of Ibsen’s play about suffocating bourgeois sexism focuses on the concept that men and male power are not dependent on physical size. The staging is brilliant, from the first rolling-down of red curtains to create a claustrophobic smaller space in which a doll’s house is erected, so that the characters have to crouch and crawl through its doors and windows the females, that is, for all male characters are under 1.3 metres in height. As director Lee Breuer says, the patriarchy is in reality three feet tall, but has a voice that will dominate six-foot women. Indeed, in casting tall women (the maid Helene, already the towering height of six foot, is further elevated on stilts), Breuer makes an ironic point, which he calls the politics of scale: “Who really are the dolls in this house?” His adaptation thus plays with the scale of both the actors and the set to make a powerful statement about gender politics. “Male power isn’t dependent on physical size,” says Breuer. “We’re exploring the metaphor from the woman’s point of view, the way maternal love is lavished on these child-size men, which only infantilises them further.”

As Nora says, empowered by her disillusion, “I’ve conceived three children”, even though this production gives her only two children. Of these, particular praise is due to “son” Ivar, played by tiny 10-year old archetypical Little Person Hannah Kritzeck who, as the program notes, is “tall as a yard stick.” She is fascinating with her truly doll-like physique and her excellent acting.

Nora, of course, is the focal point of the play and it’s significant that actor Maude Mitchell is billed as co-adapter, for she obviously has strong ownership of the role. Hence, she’s brave enough to bare all in the final scenes with no attempt to glamorise sagging flesh. We watch Nora’s development from someone who is merely her husband’s twittery songbird/squirrel, who inevitably begins to grate by the end of the first half, into a truly towering character. This is not because she’s twice the physical size of her husband, for it is accentuated in the final scene by her flowing white skirt that billows from the opera house box down to the floor. As she says “I have another duty, just as sacred…my duty to myself”, she tears off the billows and all her clothes. The impact of her unflinching nakedness is probably far more potent than anything even Ibsen could have imagined.

Mitchell’s voice reveals this growth: her high, girlish, breathy chirping deepens into a deep masculine range as her inner strength develops. Most of the actors manage to adapt their native American accents well enough to become convincing Norwegian tones, helped by the addition of some actual terms ( tack for thank you, ja and nej). Mitchell’s accent is more convincing than that of Torvald (Mark Povinelli), who slips occasionally into an American tone, but his tight timbre reveals dominance and cruelty under the saccharine endearments. Nora’s friend, Kristina Linde (Honora Fergusson Neumann) projects a rich deep voice that rivals the men’s masculinity.

The staging and lighting are particularly effective: the strobe lighting that portrays Nora’s hysteria as she dances the tarantella in her Capri costume reflects her almost unbearable intensity. Pianist Cristina Valdés adds a musical running commentary as in a silent movie, with a score largely adapted by composer Eve Beglarian from the music of Edvard Grieg. Helene (Margaret Lancaster) plays a bass flute and adds a piercing soprano to the violin which Nils Krogstad (Medina) draws with a flourish from his briefcase for the hilarious scene where Kristine Linde seduces him. Here Breuer expands Ibsen’s script with his uproarious choreography of the event, which adds to the coyness of the original meeting outside.

The final scene is performed as opera with the doll’s house transformed into an opera house, with dramatic monologues turned into operatic arias. Pairs of puppets are used as a chorus, echoing the argument with their voices and their little hands. Within this set, designed and built by Jane Catherine Shaw, they watch the action from box seats along the back wall, reflecting the leading characters in their actions, the males raising pleading arms. Thus Breuer creates the concept that the dolls observe the dolls: “I wanted to allude to the fact that we’re all dolls, programmed to observe and to comment. In the last analysis, we’re all kind of programmed.”

Does this treatment of Ibsen’s play, which was unsettling even in its own time, gain anything from the casting of Little People? Or do we merely find ourselves fascinated, displaying the same reluctant voyeuristic that we display at sideshow alley freaks as we peep through our hands? Whatever one might think, the casting certainly proves that these males are sexual beings unashamed to show their flesh or to simulate orgasm. Overall, it’s a powerful and thought-provoking production in which all actors, whatever their size, challenge us to rethink gender, marriage and relationships. The combination of such a brave production with the whole-hearted commitment from the actors and brilliantly innovative staging makes it a tour de force.

Directed by Lee Breuer

Played at the Brisbane Festival, July 15-22, 8pm

Duration: 2 hours 30 mins (interval 20 mins)

— Ruth Bonetti
(Performance seen: Mon 17th July 2006)