A Doll's House was first published in 1879, The Portrait of a Lady first performed in 1880, giving Peter Hall the idea of directing in one season these varying perspectives on female freedom – one ending in escape from domestic tyranny, the other in submission. But which heroine ends up better off? The answer isn't straightforward, much less predictable, but it's muddled further by confused and cryptic dramatisations.
Both women are played by Catherine McCormack, who is, unfortunately, a major liability. She does not overcome the handicap of being far too old for Henry James's Isabel Archer, the personification of American confidence, idealism, and naivete, with a romantic purity of vision that ruins her life. Any actress, though, would find conveying these a formidable task, given Nicki Frei's adaptation, which flits between past and present, killing any sense of Isabel's slowly falling under the spell of Gilbert Osmond and, only after their marriage, waking up to his treachery. Nor is Finbar Lynch a likely love object – though he, also, is thwarted by the text, which condenses Osmond's role to a mere symbol of wicked old Europe. And the lovely, innocent-looking Niamh Cusack is peculiar casting for Isabel's nemesis, Madame Merle.
It's unfortunate for Frei that her work is paired with one of the greatest plays by the greatest playwright (bar Chekhov) of modern times. But the playwright's skill is compromised by the two leads. Instead of making us realise, by imperceptible degrees, that she is suppressing a volcano of rage and hysteria, McCormack's Nora is clearly falling to bits from the opening scene. After the tarantella scene, in which Nora's emotions find a physical outlet, McCormack settles down to a fine, steady portrayal of a woman in horrible combat with the man who should be her greatest ally. But, as in the other play, one feels no chemistry between her and Lynch, who plays Torvald.
When Torvald denounces Nora for fleeing her responsibilities, she replies that she is not fit to be a wife and mother until she has fulfilled her duty to herself as a human being. In light of the anguish this rallying cry has caused, may not some of us see Nora's desertion as self-indulgence rather than conscientiousness? It's a shame not to have the question, so interestingly raised, so shallowly explored.
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