A Doll's House, Donmar, London
The Observer, NT Cottesloe, London
Grasses of a Thousand Colours, Royal Court Upstairs, London

The Donmar's new Ibsen isn't so much a clever interpretation as a bit of questionable rewriting

The wife of a cabinet minister involved in fraud? Surely not! Written by Ibsen in 1879, A Doll's House is renowned for having been startlingly ahead of its time in terms of feminism. But who'd have thought it would be so up to the minute, financially, in May 2009?

Zinnie Harris's new English adaptation is not in modern dress. With the setting shifted only to London in 1909, Gillian Anderson's Nora is robed in belle époque gowns, and her ministerial spouse, Thomas (Toby Stephens), wears wing collars to work. Nonetheless, the scandal they face is uncannily topical, chiming with this month's "Moatgate" furore over parliamentarians' use of the kitty.

Anderson's Nora has been fiddling the household expenses and has risked fraud to supplement her husband's income. The couple have just moved into a new mansion – still strewn with unpacked tea crates – when she finds herself threatened with an exposé.

Stephens's Thomas dreads the consequences of tarnished Westminster reputations. "As politicians, our staple is trust," he underlines. The audience hoots. This could have been written yesterday!

Erm, actually, it pretty much was. That line isn't in Ibsen's original script. Torvald (the Thomas of 1879) wasn't even a politician. He was a small-town lawyer turned bank manager. One might complain that Joe Public is being deceived by "new versions" such as Harris's. More transparency is needed: programme notes about such adjustments, at least.

It was primarily the sexual politics of A Doll's House that scandalised Victorian theatre-goers, and that issue plays second fiddle here. It emerges strongly only at the close, when Nora walks out on her patriarchal husband. Stephens is left crumpled on the floor, crying like a baby. Prior to that, he is very amusing as the swanky politico. He and Anderson also make their domestic relationship instantly recognisable – not dated – with frisky, teasing amorousness. Disappointingly though, Anderson is never quite convincing when wringing her hands about Christopher Eccleston's Kelman, the blackmailing desperado.

Tara Fitzgerald is hit and miss too, playing Nora's impoverished friend Christine as a testy socialist. Maybe the blame lies with director Kfir Yefet. Overall, the acting feels jerky, not fully joined up, regardless of star casting.

In Matt Charman's outstanding new play, The Observer, the British government is keeping Anna Chancellor's Fiona under surveillance. She is essentially running the international observation team in an unnamed ex-colony in Africa. Their mission is to assess – supposedly objectively – how free and fair its first democratic elections are.

With discussions about voter registration and electoral committees, this could be theatrically arid, yet Richard Eyre's superb ensemble of actors is gripping. They subtly depict a world where diplomacy and bureaucratic pragmatism are eroded by improprieties and smouldering tensions. Charman also sharply questions the possibility of true impartiality. This young dramatist has progressed by leaps and bounds since his 2007 NT debut.

The set changes are slightly distracting, being visible in the background of other scenes through chinks in a wall of drop-down blinds. Perhaps such snooping is being invited, though. In The Observer, after all, everyone is monitoring everyone else. James Fleet is charmingly droll then chilling as the Foreign Office's smiling, spying civil servant. Chuk Iwuji shines as Fiona's smitten but wary translator. Cyril Nri doubles as a delightfully sunny barman and icy army general. Meanwhile, Chancellor's Fiona gradually loses her cool under stress. As her long-distance marriage disintegrates, she lets her political sympathies and passion destroy her professionalism. Highly recommended.

In Grasses of a Thousand Colours, some kind of nightmarish apocalypse is engulfing the world. A scientist has made animals and people turn omnivorous, and now they're malfunctioning, crazed and terminally sick. This is the world premiere of a stupendously wacky, blackly comic chamber piece by the Hollywood actor and experimental playwright Wallace Shawn.

He himself plays the scientist, rolling up on stage in a black silk dressing gown, looking like a bonkers gnome crossed with Noël Coward. He waves hello to the audience and says he's appreciating each of us like a box of chocolates, and some of us are whisky flavoured. Then he pulls out a fat book and launches into his memoirs, soon digressing preposterously, in graphic detail, about his penis and his erotic adventures with women and fairytale cats in palaces.

I have to say this made me laugh a lot, even if length does matter and Shawn bangs on for over three hours. He is unedited by his director, André Gregory, and his darkening ending lacks real weight.

Nevertheless, the way his storytelling slides between the everyday and dreams is strangely brilliant, liberated and sharply focused. His materialising fantasies are wonderfully tongue in cheek too. The voluptuous Jennifer Tilly pops out of nowhere, tipping the audience the wink. And a prowling Miranda Richardson rolls over the back of Shawn's sofa with glitter-dusted skin and feline makeup. By the end, she looks like something from Cats staged in an asylum.

'A Doll's House' (0870 060 6624) to 18 July; 'The Observer' (020-7452 3000) to 8 July; 'Grasses of a Thousand Colours' (020-7565 5000) to 27 June

Arts and Entertainment
Shades of glory: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend

Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
    Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

    Flesh in Venice

    Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
    Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

    Juventus vs Real Madrid

    Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
    Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

    Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

    Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power