The Doll’s House
I have seen two versions of this play just recently: Anja Maksić’s LUTKINA KUĆA/ZMIJA MLADOŽENJA (Doll’s House / Viper Groom) at Eurokaz in 2008 (here’s the account), and Thomas Ostermeier’s Schaubuehne production (called NORA) on DVD in 2010. I am not unusual in that. Henrik Ibsen’s The Doll’s House – which I may occasionally refer to as ‘Nora’ in this text, because that is its officially unofficial name in Europe – is the most performed play in the world. Even in Australia, a place fairly meagrely serviced with theatre by any global measure, there are doll’s houses springing up at universities, at Fringe time, at arts festivals (e.g. Mabou Mines’ DOLLHOUSE at Brisbane Festival 2006). This is a play staged for show, not for servicing the text. There is hardly anyone left today who doesn’t know this play, doesn’t know that Nora Helmer is the childlike wifey of a Norwegian banker Torvald, doesn’t know that she ends the play by slamming the door that leads out of her marriage, doesn’t know that this was a scandal on stage when it premiered. The Doll’s House is a play with a cultural significance that goes far beyond its pure literary value, and for this reason the text itself is distinctly unimportant to the productions of this play. The audience is not here for the plot. We know the play well. We are here for style. We are here to see how this particular creative team will grapple with the conundrum that is this text. We are here to see how she will solve the technical problems particular to the play (the changed condition of women, which largely neutralises the weight of the ending), and how she will claim her space in a very crowded arena of interpreters.
This is our ground zero, in the discussion of this work. This is a play that a director chooses in order to make a personal statement – not in order to honour the playwright. Western culture has already done that.
1. DANIEL SCHLUSSER
Everyone who is anyone seemed to be there at the opening of Daniel Schlusser’s THE DOLLHOUSE, a semi-revival of the work he made in late 2007 with VCA acting students (although ‘on’ them might be a better choice of words, the way choreography is done ‘on’ bodies). It was a praised work then, and a pocket-sized one on top. It was also the first work Schlusser had done in Melbourne in a long time, having come back from Germany not long ago, and the first of a series that would shake Melbourne’s theatre theatre scene up. From it followed: LIFE IS A DREAM in 2008, revived in 2010, THE ZOMBIE STATE in 2008, PEER GYNT and POET NO. 7 in 2009, THE HOLLOW in 2010, and MACBETH just recently, but at Monash (raise hands ye who have seen it, and tell us what it was like).
Schlusser has attracted a devout following in these years*. There are very few theatre theatre directors in this town that could be classified as architects, as opposed to construction workers or builders. Apart from Schlusser, and by-now-expat Kosky, only Liminal Theatre’s Sitarenos and Draffin, and to some extent Marcel Dorney and Jenny Kemp (who use original text) come to mind**.
To some extent, there isn’t enough straight theatre in this country for radical interpretations to get desirable (on which I wrote here), and to an extent we are lacking the deep understanding of classical texts, their context, their impact, their importance, their critiques, their successors, in order to be able to read radical interpretations. We are all lacking this knowledge: the directors, the audiences, the critics.
Schlusser’s work, however, has gained traction despite its hermeneutic complexity, because he has made it a hallmark of his style to make works on at least two, sometimes six or more, levels. Almost every work of his I have seen has had the ability to function both as an extremely intelligent deconstruction of a canonical text, and a sort of freeform, chaotic stage event that one can appreciate, in a way similar to how Forced Entertainment’s BLOODY MESS could be appreciated, without having even the most general idea of how it related to any text at all. His version of Calderon’s Life is a Dream was, on the surface, a story of six siblings trapped in a basement their entire life, reminiscent of that year’s paramount tabloid story, who make up power games to fight boredom. His version of Ibsen’s troll fantasia Peer Gynt was a bogan wedding rehearsal, followed by a boozy house party. If you knew the text, each one of these productions was an absolute feast of intertextuality, with classic quotes reduced to non-verbal detail (Peer Gynt playing with some onions in the corner of the stage for about five seconds), but if you didn’t, you still felt embraced by the event. A certain kind of obscure, unfriendly hermeneuticism which is so often a quality of postmodernist theatre direction was here annulled.
But there are deeper qualities to Schlusser’s method. While turning Peer Gynt into a bogan party comes with a series of beneficial effects – shortening and rephrasing the text, finding surprising contemporary cultural equivalents for what are often alienatingly different circumstances of the original text – these are effects that are, on their own, enough to gain an Australian director the label ‘auteur’, and their importance might be highly overstated.
More interestingly, reducing the time of the work means reducing the entire play to a single situation, and this has allowed Schlusser to make some extraordinary statements about the source texts, far beyond a simple transposition. To place Calderon’s text into a basement of wild, unsocialised children is to locate the Baroque European court at the very extreme of incestuous, isolated idleness. Similarly, his PEER GYNT shed the frills – the ships, the trolls, the pyramids, the asylum – to become a story of a very immature little boy, fed the lines of his life by his mum and his girlfriend, at a party where nothing anyone does can really matter. It re-played the grand drama of the original play as soap-operatic melodrama, and found emotional hollowness in every utterance kept on stage. This movement semiotically sideways is in Schlusser’s work always surprising, but meticulously judged.
A consequence of this move sideways is that the text habitually stops being the vessel of truth, both of life generally, and of the true meaning of the performance, and turns into a voiced delusion: a game played by basement-bound children in LIFE IS A DREAM, or an invented adventure of a boy nobody is taking seriously in PEER GYNT. It is entirely legitimate to appreciate Schlusser’s productions as illustrations of how we use fiction to give grandeur, drama, height, to the banality of our reality.
Then there is the extraordinary quality to the performances he elicits. Schlusser is, like no other director I know, capable of stopping the actors from acting, and settling them into a long-lasting low-performativity timbre, in which they are indistinguishable from stage hands (but there are also never any stage hands here – everyone is part of the show). This has made the entire PEER GYNT, and large stretches of his other shows, look like improvisation, or the pre-dramatic beginning – you know those few minutes at the very beginning of a certain kind of performance, in which the actors arrive, fumble about, speak to each other in a low voice, settling into the stage? – of a dramatic performance. This kind of performance creates a constant, durational, low-intensity buzz, and is interesting to watch the way a street corner is interesting to watch. The energy of the stage swells and subsides, pockets of intensity build in corners, gigantic storms occasionally sweep the entire space, and sometimes the action is as dispersed as the shaking of leaves on a tree. It lends itself to being observed as rhythm, or patterns of energy, and is accessible through all sorts of swarmy, crowdy and weathery metaphors. Since everything important happens as detail, sometimes inaudible conversation, one becomes engrossed, and focused in a way that is really rare in our contemporary world. This is not TV or cinema focus, and not really a theatre kind of focus either. Rather, an anthropological, ethnographic, fieldwork sort of focus.
I have never found time to write a reflection on Schlusser’s last big work, a version of Agatha Christie’s THE HOLLOW. I will have to make a longish aside for it here, because that work showed a real evolution in these very qualities. Schlusser condensed the entire crime, investigation and revealing of the murderer to a single, long garden party, in which everything that happens in Christie’s crime happened, in a linear fashion, one event after another, on a large large stage, with a large large cast. Apart from showing the entirely non-tragic, inevitable mechanics of Agatha Christie’s world – an interesting intervention into the standard dramatic composition of her oeuvre – it was the first time that anthropology came to my mind as an apt metaphor for Schlusser’s poetics. The killing of John Christow was presented on this stage with an engaged disinterest comparable to the way the killing of an antelope would be depicted in a nature documentary. But it seemed that Schlusser was starting to play with re-introducing dramatic performance and stage effects into his weathery work, to exciting effect; and the slippage between levels of unreality had by now assumed a baroque complexity.
Another thing worth noting before we continue is that Schlusser’s large-cast works have a poetics distinct from his small-cast works. Whether this is intentional or not I am not sure. The height of performativity differs, and with it the entire experience. In all of his productions so far, Schlusser allows his performers to play with the original text, to chew on it and spit it out at times. The effect is often that of play-acting, sometimes that of voicing a role only semi-consciously. However, the rule of thumb has been, the smaller the cast, the longer and more weighty the text. Interestingly, it is as if Schlusser doesn’t trust a small swarm to hold the audience’s attention as well as a large swarm can. Whatever the reason, large-cast performances hold all of the qualities I have been discussing better: they are less theatrical theatrical, and more like nature documentaries, than his small works, which are remain more focused, less loosely paced, more tied to the original text, more dramatic, and quite simply less unusual and inventive. THE DOLLHOUSE is one such small- cast work.
2. RESTRAINT AND EXCESS
Schlusser writes, in his notes, about restraint and excess being the core of this particular dollhouse (I would love to be able to consult his notes further, but I am writing this from a hotel room in Nagoya, far away from my desk). I missed the original, 2007 production on which this short remount is based, so I cannot compare, but the current, 2011 production is one dollhouse centred around consumption, gratification, and people’s ability to resist their urges.
Australian theatre, interestingly, is not hugely concerned with consumerism (is it because it is too ungenteel a topic?, or is it because theatre is for rich people?), but this is a recurrent question for Schlusser. PEER GYNT, THE ZOMBIE STATE and THE HOLLOW had at their core money, what money can buy, and how one’s ability to buy things affects one’s social value and self-worth, in a contemporary reality largely pinpointed as Australian. More than anything, Schlusser is concerned with what we might call class, but understood more deeply, as the effect of a certain kind of monetary power on the psyche. Similarly to Christos Tsiolkas, Schlusser is interested in what we might term the essential, profound amorality of contemporary Australian society – a certain absence of core values produced by atheism, Australian national narrative, and what many people I speak to call ‘the effect of the Howard years’. Both of these story-tellers are prepared to go beyond sparkling drawing-room satire (from David Williamson’s uneven oeuvre to Hayloft Project’s excellent DELECTABLE SHELTER, and dig into the moral barrenness of lives in which plasma-screen TV becomes a measure of a great deal more than one’s disposable income.
When we meet them, Nora and Torvald have been very successfully transposed to contemporary Australia – Torvald has just got a promotion at the Macquarie Bank (Australian bank known for its aggressive investments – for those of my foreign readers, because every Australian knows Macquarie Bank). Nora is a yummy mummy, living a life of shopping and parties, with sidekick Dr Rank. The simple patriarchy of 19th-century Norway has become a more complicated story: Nora is a sex kitten alright, but Torvald is now the PlayStation husband, performing his masculinity through absence and silence, playing shoot ’em up games from an Eames armchair for most of the play. If Ibsen’s Nora had to be a chirpy little lark for a husband who treated her like a child (monitoring her candy intake, among other things), and if their marriage functioned as a happy game of pretend-domination and performed immaturity, Nikki Shiels works hard on being a sex dolly, offering a range of pornographic services in order to get her husband’s attention away from the computer game. This is not a household based on honesty, but two people’s unspoken fantasies of the other sex welded into a marriage. But Australian contemporary masculinity is a complex thing, lined with taciturn violence, where aggression is expressed more often as subdued undermining than paternal reprimanding: caught with marshmallows, Nora is seated in the Eames chair and made to gorge on them, while Torvald makes her repeat “nobody likes a chubby mummy”.
Everything here, be it sex, money or lollies and jobs, becomes a transactional good, a reward, a bribe: excess comes to signify happiness, and deprivation is meted out as punishment. There is a capitalist logic to this emotional world, very similar to that of Jonathan Franzen’s Corrections, in which all love and all sex are simply transactions that raise or lower the characters’ social standing. But where Franzen shines a very harsh light on the Lambert family, Schlusser keeps his stage pastel-lit, in a way both ironic and earnest, critical and gentle. The constant gratification, an eternal present tense of morality, creates a household engaged in an ongoing party (another Schlusserian constant): the apex of the production is a beautiful, wordless celebration of gifts bestowed upon the house guests by Nora, with Torvald’s money, a choreography of Christmas lights, to the music of Sigur Ros. It is a seductive, pleasant fantasy world, and there is a surprising sweetness to this production. Even when Mrs Linde and Krogstad, whose emotionally honest romance provides a strong counterweight to the emotional candy floss of the Helmers, decide to let all secrets be spilled, they do it in a well-meaning spirit “I’ve been here for three days… nobody talks”.
For all the meta-frills and naturalistic banality, you can see this is a very faithful rendition of Ibsen’s play, and as such perhaps a lesser Schlusser work, certainly for my taste. The transposition is accurate, the interpretation convincing and intelligent. Still, it is a remount of an early work, and it anticipates rather than further developing the extraordinary theatricality of PEER GYNT or THE HOLLOW. There is a lot of acting here, a lot of text delivered in a fairly straight way, and we have by now seen Daniel Schlusser attempt and achieve more. I am much tougher here than I would be with almost any other Australian director, because Schlusser operates in another league entirely, and should continue to do so. It often feels here that the text is used as a crutch, to fill the stage (the swarm is too small) or to give shape to the performance – and I understand that this is a ludicrous thing to write, but I count on enough people to have seen PEER GYNT to understand what I mean. For all its merits, THE DOLLHOUSE is still reasonably conventional theatre, and Schlusser’s good name in my books is largely due to his other works. But, as I said earlier, there is a distinct separation between his small- and large-cast works, and this was a small one.
3. LOU SALOME AND THE ENDING
I had never quite believed in Ibsen’s ending of The Dollhouse. Nora’s final transformation from chirpy doll to emancipated woman seemed mechanical and too sudden, like a dramatic device with no grounding in realistic psyhology, until I read Lou Salomé’s interpretation of the play. Salomé, an early Freudian, wrote an exquisite psychoanalytical analysis of Ibsen’s female characters. In her interpretation, which I found eye-opening, Nora is a woman who not so much acts in someone else’s story, as stretches the limits of her own fantasy until she can no longer believe in it. Replacing one father figure with another, she responds to perceived love the only way she knows: by building her identity as an object of joy, as a happiness-bringer, a 19th-century manic pixie dream girl (this Natalie Portman in Garden State). According to Holly Welker, “MPDGs are said to help their men without pursuing their own happiness, and such characters never grow up, thus their men never grow up.” This is as good explanation as any to the dynamic of the Helmer marriage. Salomé:
For Nora, love requires a certain sacrifice of self, and according to Salomé she does gain strength through this sacrifice, to the point that, when she realises that Torvald is not prepared to do the same for love, she resigns from the game. For Salomé, Nora’s final disappointment in Torvald is akin to a loss of God, a total demystification. Her love is revealed to be a hoax, the object of her love unworthy of it. (Note that there is a mystical quality to this kind of love, something femininity has not yet gotten divorced from – Pauline Reage’s Story of O might be read as the Holy Testament of this worldview. It is also deeply, deeply romantic – something Elfriede Jelinek picks up on in her sequel to Ibsen’s play, What Happened After Nora Left Her Husband.) Salomé:
When Nora slams the door to the dollhouse of her 19th-century marriage, she is not going anywhere much. She cannot work, she will never see her children again, it is a suicide in more than one sense. This was an entirely unrealistic ending at the time it premiered, an unexpected coda to what was until then a simple bourgeois story of drawing-room intrigue. It is said that women stood and applauded, and men sat in shock. What happened on that stage was staging of something impossible. It was performing a dream, a Marina Abramović moment. This was the original effect of The Doll’s House that cannot be replicated anymore. The technical problem of The Doll’s House today is how to credibly stage this ending, how to give it the devastating impact it had then. The underlying assumption of tragedy is, thankfully, no longer possible. A woman would be leaving a marriage with children, off to a menial job (or three) and – in Australia at least (as opposed to, say, Iceland) – a world in which single mothers are still routinely assumed to create somewhat delinquent children. But still, this is not a tragic ending anymore. So Schlusser resuscitates the alternative ending, one that Ibsen had to provide for actresses that refused to perform the ending: an awful dialogue in which Torvald shows Nora her peacefully sleeping children and asks how she could possibly leave them, her dear little angels. No, she couldn’t, she decides, and stays.
I cannot quite make up my mind about the ending to this production. It strikes some false notes with me, but also some scintillatingly right ones. In retrospect, it looks quite smart. At the time, however, I was unconvinced, in particular by Kade Greenland’s Torvald, whose anger I found neither convincing nor frightening. Ostermeier’s NORA, for all its banalities, managed to create an enormous sense of physical threat, fear and loss of faith – when his Nora shoots Torvald in her Lara Croft costume, I understood why she would. When Schlusser’s Nikki Shiels comes out in a tracksuit and has a long protofeminist dialogue with her husband, whom she has now decided to leave, the production is, at least on the opening night, at least for me, hitting between the keys for the first time of the evening. And yet, upon her suggestion that they give back their rings, here is Torvald saying “I paid for both”, in a moment of majestic truth. Here is a man whose morality exists as righteousness, and whose righteousness is based on the money he earns, and who reacts instinctively to insult – in one line. Then, revealing a real, blonde sleeping child pierces your heart, because no child was until then visible on stage. And yes, this is an incredibly hard scene to get right – but it is also the scene on which we judge the success of any interpretation of this play. When Torvald hugs his daughter, the possibility of him having just acquired another songbird is terrifying, but the text has been largely kept, and a mother, however irresponsible, would today probably not be getting out of a marriage without her children. Is this a passive-aggressive, inconsistent, emotionally manipulative man, a product of contemporary patriarchy? Perhaps. Is this a woman who speaks like she knows what she wants, but doesn’t really? Or is she a woman who chooses yet another sacrifice of self, in the all-too-short moment of reflection as she is walking off the stage? Perhaps. It was not clear. After so much precision, I suddenly saw the interpretation missing its mark.
I understand and share Schlusser’s suspicion towards Nora’s emancipation. I cannot quite shake off the impression that modern-day Nora still ends up in a territory closer to the owlish disintegration of self announced in Story of O than in a fulfilled feminist dream. But this confusion that women’s lib has brought us is grasped so uncertainly by this ending, which itself would need to be less confused if it were to pinpoint it properly. This is a very minor criticism of a work which is extraordinary on so many levels – but the effect of a work of theatre is largely in its landing.
* of which I am a somewhat-member; the tone of this review will hopefully explain how and why
** although I am speaking here as a person who has managed to miss every single production by Four Larks and Mutation Theatre, please bear with this gap in my knowledge
The Dollhouse, adapted from the play by Henrik Ibsen, directed by Daniel Schlusser. Set design by Jeminah Reidy, costumes by Tiffany Abbott, lighting by Kimberly Kwa, sound by Martin Kay. With Nikki Shiels, Kade Greenland, Edwina Wren, Josh Price, Daniel Schlusser and Cate Bastian/Gabrielle Abbott. Fortfive Downstairs, September 15-25.