A marriage made in Norway

Ibsen meets Wife Swap in a Leeds production of A Doll's House

It is not often that the 19th-century Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen is mentioned in the same sentence as Channel 4's Wife Swap. However, Ian Brown, artistic director of the West Yorkshire Playhouse, cites the hit TV "reality" show as a source of inspiration for his new production of A Doll's House, which opens at the theatre next month.

A Doll's House tells the tale of a perfect marriage and family whose apparently blissful existence is thrown into turmoil by the dark secret of wife and mother, Nora. Brown has chosen to keep the play, written in 1879, as a period piece, describing it as "very much a play of its time" whose message nevertheless remains timeless. "I was knocked out by how immediate it is. Some Ibsen plays are a little dusty and difficult to relate to, but this one seems to get to the heart of a real situation that is still going on. I don't think that things have changed hugely in terms of what marriage does to some people."

Although he admits that the Wife Swap comparison is trite in one sense, Brown believes that the television programme proves that the war of the sexes, so vividly portrayed in Ibsen's play, continues today: "Men and women still trap themselves into pre-defined roles. It's easy to swallow the marriage pill and find yourself in an unexpected role. Men and women still have problems relating to one other as equal partners."

Nora, the model wife who travels the difficult path to independence and liberation during the course of the play, will be played by Tanya Moodie. She performed the title role in Medea at the Playhouse in 2003 to critical acclaim, and Brown has wanted to work with her ever since. The crux of the play lies in Nora's gradual realisation that her role as submissive wife, playing second fiddle to her husband, Torveld, is no longer sustainable. In Brown's production, the development of that awareness in Nora is highlighted by the period clothing. "Nora is held in by her corseted dress. She frees herself in the costume that she dons for the fancy-dress party," he explains.

The set, favouring "stripped-down Scandinavian interiors" over cluttered Victorian ones, will allow the actors more freedom to portray their changing roles and relationships. Since there is much talk in the play of Torveld's work, and the intrigue centres on the blackmailing of Nora, the set will also allow the audience to see into Torveld's study, and even the letterbox through which the letters arrive, creating the impression of a cross-section of a doll's house.

Brown's last two productions at the Playhouse have been the Christmas show, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and a new play by Murray Gold, Electricity. For him, A Doll's House is a return to an old favourite: "It's so good to come up against a text that you know will stand up to exploration." Written 125 years ago, Ibsen's play is still going strong. And with not an expletive to be bleeped or a TV camera in sight.

'A Doll's House', West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, 18 Feb to 19 March (0113-213 7700; www.wyp.org.uk)

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