The definition of catharsis

THEATRE A Doll's House, Playhouse, London
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The Independent Culture
The door in Ibsen's A Doll's House has banged shut so often, it's a wonder it's not off its hinges. A bad or indifferent staging of this endlessly revived piece can delude you into thinking that this is a play that has done its good work in the world and that that very achievement has given it a fusty, obsolete air. You can feel, on these occasions, that Ibsen's treatment of the relations between the sexes is weaker than Strindberg's because the problems the former dramatises are soluble by enlightened legislation or "progress", whereas you'd have to rethink biology to bring peace to the conflicts that the latter depicts.

There were extraneous factors at the first night of Anthony Page's superb production which could have reinforced this view. Just how far women have come since the days when Nora's husband had sole possession of even the key to the letterbox could be gauged by the behaviour of a "lady" in what looked to be a party of backers seated in the main box. During the performance, this female received four calls on her mobile phone and took them, at length, in the corridor by the side of the auditorium, thus making what sounded like discussions with her commodities broker compete with the play for the attention of half the stalls. So, boorish philistinism is now open to both sexes. I suppose we should be grateful she hadn't brought along her fax.

Page's revelatory revival manages to rise above such rudeness and all of the foregoing objections. While intensifying a sense that the play turns on the injustice of sexual inequality, his production reminds you that it is also about something profounder and that Ibsen was right to proclaim that A Doll's House explores the need of every human being, whether man or woman, to know who they really are and to strive to become that person.

Janet McTeer, as Nora, scales heights in the final act that make you feel that this blindfold-shredding confrontation between Nora and her husband is happening for the very first time. The greatness of the performance lies in the way she pushes it out at both ends. From the outset she lets you see that - deep down, at however unconscious a level - this disconcertingly tall Nora already knows that her marriage is built on a fault-line and that when her loving deceptions are finally revealed, her husband will be more concerned with his public image than with her. The indecently girlish abundance of blonde hair, the roguish look-at-naughty-little-me way she trips across to hide macaroons in the piano and flirts like a forward child with everyone in sight show you a woman who has grown up but still wears her infantilism like a disguise.

The compulsive gay shrieks, the hand that flaps away troubling thoughts and the tongue that arches back to the nostrils in conspiratorial mischievousness are the behavioural corollary, you detect, of profound unhappiness. It made me think of the Princess who feels the pea under all those layers of mattress, with the additional twist here that repeated earth tremors of plot are causing that protective pile to wobble with a sickening precariousness.

Correspondingly, in the final, thrillingly paced showdown, her Nora - trembling, in shock, but bravely standing her ground - does not reach out for the feminist cosh too early. It's her love for Torvald that makes her want him to see reality and her distressed eyes search his face for the least sign of understanding. At one point, her fingers instinctively rush to place a comforting hand on his. She's a Nora who holds on to the rope of their potential togetherness as it frays and frays and frays up to the moment when it breaks with an elating snap and, throwing all sorts of protectiveness to the winds, Nora hurls the truth straight in his face.

The electrical charge of the scene is boosted by a sense of physical danger that you don't often get hereabouts. Owen Teale's dogmatic, Welsh Torvald proves that moral weakness and its corporeal equivalent don't necessarily go together. A strapping, virile ox with a self-sentimentalising streak, he's the kind of man who, if he were to kill or rape his wife, would blubber with fetching self-pity afterwards.

At the final curtain, Teale looked as if he'd broken down briefly backstage. In the circumstances, who could blame him? I find it hard to define catharsis, but I know it when I experience it. You will, too, when you go to see this compulsory account of a very great play.

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