A Doll's House, Repertory Theatre Birmingham

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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 that it's not off its hinges. But just to remind you that this astonishing masterpiece, premiered in 1879, has lost none of its freshness or pertinence, here are two high-profile productions that bear testimony to the play's unflagging capacity to shock.

Superficially, the more challenging and up-to-date version is the revival by Thomas Ostermeier, the über-wunderkind director of Berlin's Schaubühne Theatre who introduced Mark Ravenhill and Sarah Kane to Germany. But to see his startling play at the Barbican last week immediately after Rachel Kavanaugh's more conventional production (starring Tara Fitzgerald at Birmingham Rep) is an instructive experience. Ostermeier is intent on shooting you between the eyes. Kavanaugh and her translator, the playwright Bryony Lavery, are content to steal up on you unawares. I emerged from the Barbican feeling vaguely patronised. I staggered from Birmingham Rep shaken to the core.

The German production takes the line that you have to find contemporary parallels in order share the experience of the play's first audiences. So Nora and Torvald are reinvented as 21st-century yuppies in a swish, achingly-hip multi-level apartment. Instead of the original pet songbird, the heroine is the designer-dressed trophy-wife of a man more at ease with status symbols than female emotions. Anne Tismer is a frenetic and insecure Nora, feeding the ego of her husband (Jorg Hartmann) by groping his groin in public when she wants a favour or (as a substitute for Ibsen's tarantella scene) hurling herself around like a Lara Croft-clone to an electro-clash track on the hi-fi.

The staging has a crude, grotesque vigour, but it's founded on a fallacy. Instead of walking out on the husband who has treated her as his play-thing and evinced more concern for his public image than her, this heroine shoots him dead, firing bullet after bullet so that he winds up face down in their tropical fish-tank. The production swathes the revolving set in huge digital images of the children (Torvald treats his family as photo-opportunities) without showing the remotest interest in them. In Ibsen's play, Nora agonises over whether a woman who does not know herself can be a fit mother. Her exit leaves open the possibility that one day she will be able to return and resume her motherly duties on a healthier footing. In the mistaken assumption that it is offering a radical, contemporary alternative, this revival asks us to believe that Nora would opt, in cold blood, for a self-defeating and melodramatic way out. What kind of future will the children have now? Has this Nora never heard of divorce settlements?

In the Birmingham Rep production, Tara Fitzgerald is magnificent in the later stages of the drama when the newly-enlightened heroine confronts her husband with devastating home truths. Janet McTeer, the greatest interpreter of the role I have seen, showed you a wife infantilised by her stifling domestic set-up. But the supreme virtue of Kavanaugh's gripping production and Bryony Lavery's insightful translation is an understanding that Torvald is a prisoner of the doll's house too. You look down upon the husband in the German production with steady, distanced loathing. You writhe in disturbed fellow-feeling with Tom Goodman-Hill's masculine-role-playing hero. Kavanaugh's production convinces you that Ibsen was not being coy when, at a banquet organised by the Norwegian Association for Women's Rights, he declared that the play is wider than its feminist reputation. I saw this version at a matinée packed with sixth formers who are studying A Doll's House at A-level. They cheered it to the rafters, having come to see a set text and witnessing, in addition, the kind of masterpiece that changes lives.