A Doll's House, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds

Houses of pain and pleasure
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The Independent Culture

The death-defying tarantella that Nora dances as if her life depends upon it does not occur until near the end of the second act of Ibsen's A Doll's House. But such is the spirit and vigour with which the engaging actress Tanya Moodie approaches her role as the captive wife that, from the beginning, you feel she has already been stung by the tarantula biting at her heels. She's cheerful to the point of appearing manic long before the deceit, in which she has become selflessly, if naively, involved, begins to unravel.

If this Nora is a doll, it's a model that you wind up and then let go, allowing it to swivel, directionless, until it bumps up against immovable obstacles. Those barriers are men, assured in their belief that marriage is sacrosanct, that a male's position of authority in his home is strictly non-negotiable and that a woman merely plays the role of an automaton. Nora's major obstruction, her husband, Torvald, is not only pompous and condescending, but often seems on the verge of violence in John Lightbody's abrasive portrayal.

Even when he's not raising his voice in a fit of anger, Lightbody shouts, and you suspect that his wife has acquired her own guileful means of dealing with his childlike demands, lapsing so naturally into playing the scrabbling squirrel and apparently carefree skylark to humour him.

Toying with her children when it suits her to play happy families, beguiling the couple's old hanger-on of a friend, Dr Rank, and bubbling over insensitively with her own successes to her unhappy old schoolfriend, Mrs Linde, Nora makes you cringe. When exactly her act stops being an act is quite hard to say in Moodie's absorbing interpretation, but she arouses our sympathy. When her fragile belief in a "miracle" is shattered - as she realises that her husband's love is far from boundless compared to her own unconditional devotion - we are willing her to cut free from her stultifying life.

In Matthew Lloyd's engrossing staging of Christopher Hampton's translation, Krogstad (Michael Matus) grows immeasurably in stature, from grubby money-lender to desperate blackmailer and finally to a man with a ray of hope, thanks to the selfless Mrs Linde, given a strong performance from Sarah Tansey. Despite the airy minimalism of Peter McKintosh's stylish blue-grey room, the mood is one of intense claustrophobia, heightened by Richard Taylor's spooky music. That smothering feeling is only banished at the end when, beyond a scrim, the figure of Nora stands, a kind of anti-Mary Poppins, alone in the snow-filled darkness, free to be herself for the first time.

Heading west from Leeds, we come to Halifax and Alan Plater. His Sweet William gives Northern Broadsides its first world premiere in the company's 13-year existence of "doing Shakespeare the Northern way". It inspires a warm, big-hearted production.

If, as Plater put it recently, an abandoned project "lives for ever in the vaults of the imagination", the unabandoned Sweet William came memorably alive in the vaults of the old West Yorkshire carpet mill which Northern Broadsides calls home. It could scarcely be bettered as a setting, since outside the East End drinking den - in whose rough and ready surroundings this slice of Shakespearean lowlife is set - it seems that "the rain it raineth ev'ry day". In reality, the brick walls of this dankly evocative space positively gurgled with the sound of melting snow and the old mill stream running through the regenerated Dean Clough complex.

Led and directed by the actor-manager Barrie Rutter, a Falstaffian figure of vivid bonhomie who greets the audience as they wind their way down to the Viaduct Theatre, a cast of rude mechanicals are getting tanked up. They've a few scores to settle with their pal, "Wee Willie Shaggers from Stratford Town".

Waiting for Willie becomes the focus of the first half of the play, and we seem stuck in the groove of "Greensleeves" as the regulars roll up to the Boar's Head. It's 1599, and they all bear hallmarks of a pre-existence of sorts in Shakespeare's light comedies and history plays, with a few pre-echoes of the later tragedies and more sinister comedies.

You don't need to brush up on your Shakespeare to enjoy the in-jokes, skimpy plot, boisterous song and burst of clog dance that Plater has devised to suggest how the Bard drew on his colourful friends to flesh out the characters in his plays. And how, in bringing their case to book, they put him on mock trial.

At least a quart of life has been poured into this refreshing pint pot of a pub play.

'A Doll's House' to 19 March (0113-213 7700). 'Sweet William' touring to 11 June (www.northern-broadsides.co.uk)

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