THEATRE / Ibsen, a suitable case for treatment: They lock the audience in after curtain-down at the Hampstead Theatre. Joseph Gallivan joined a group analysis of Ibsen's A Doll's House

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Ibsen's A Doll's House was the Oleanna of the 1880s. The story of a bourgeois housewife who abandons her patriarchal husband and three children to go off and find herself sparked a gender war in northern Europe among the chattering classes. After its premiere in 1879 tempers ran so high in Christiania (Oslo) that dinner invitations often bore the additional inscription: 'Guests are requested not to mention A Doll's House'. The author was even forced to write a happy ending for the play when the top German actress of the day, Hedwig Niemann-Raabe, declared it immoral, and that she would never leave her children.

A century later, people are still talking. Sue Lefton, director of the production at the New End Theatre in Hampstead, London, has organised a series of workshops and discussions. Lefton, who has worked at the National and the RSC, is committed to the idea that theatre-goers enjoy the chance to discuss a production together, while it is still fresh in their minds, with the assistance of the cast and some specialists from other disciplines. Relate, the relationship guidance organisation, even sponsored a talk - appropriately enough for a play in which one marriage is remade and another falls apart. This week it was the turn of the British Psycho-Analytical Society to play host. Sitting in a wide arc across the bare stage after the perfomance, the analysts Dr Gerald Wooster (chairman) and Juliet Mitchell-Rossdale (author of Psychoanalysis and Feminism) were joined by the Sunday Times theatre critic John Peter, the director and four of the cast.

One of the innovations of A Doll's House was the way it introduced the discussion into drama as the climax of the plot. Just before she exits, suitcase in hand, the heroine Nora sits her husband down and declares that they have 'never exchanged one serious word about serious things' in eight years of marriage.

Gerald Wooster, a psychoanalyst in private practice and in the NHS at the University of London Health Centre, began the discussion here by pointing out the similarity between what goes on in the consulting-room and this play: the past catches up with the present and threatens the status quo (Dr Rank's syphilis, inherited from his father, Nora's forged IOU), like the repressed memories of a patient. John Peter added a remark of Freud's to the effect that there is a human tendency to personify that which we wish to understand, and that drama therefore has a unique therapeutic effect on society. Juliet Mitchell-Rossdale, a psychoanalyst in private practice in London and Professor at Large at Cornell University, USA, noted 'the very heterosexual interpretation of the play,' in the way the focus is on the male-female couples and not so much on the relationship between the two key women, Nora and her friend Christine. Sue Lefton stressed that it was 'such a contemporary play (she) had even considered setting it in Hampstead now, but decided to leave the audience space to come to their own conclusions'. All hope of simple solutions to the play's mysteries faded as the panellists shot off in different directions.

And we hadn't heard from the actors yet. Steven Crossley, who played Dr Rank, the secret admirer of Nora, his best friend's wife, began by comparing himself to a psychoanalyst. 'In rehearsal I've often felt like a budding therapist, as though I'm telling Nora to wake up and get out of this sham marriage,' he confessed. The actors were, as might be expected, chiefly preoccupied with seeing the play from the viewpoint of the characters they were playing. Geraldine Alexander (Christine) gave an elliptical speech about the way Nora's moments of insight chime 'like little bells throughout the play, until they come to this great agglomeration in the last scene'. Ann Queensberry (The Nurse), who has few lines, turned out to be deeply concerned with the relationship between her character, a woman who had once abandoned her daughter for money, and Nora, who had also been abandoned and who was just about to leave her own children.

Released from the constraints of Ibsen's script and Lefton's direction, there was no stopping the cast in free-flow. And talk of their craft dispensed with, their take on the characters they had lived with for the past six weeks proved a good way of illuminating the action. As the connections in the play were teased out, the thrust of the evening's discourse became speculation about the characters' true natures: what they would do in other circumstances, what they did before or after the play.

As the actors made the stage their own for the second time in the evening, the psychoanalysts, well used to listening, withdrew from the debate and observed as the audience began to heat up. 'No, no] I disagree]' said a woman with a German accent, slightly missing a modest point the Nurse was making about being a 'supportive' character. 'Underneath everything for Nora is a terror. It was painful to watch - I could feel it in my solar plexus]'

'What about Krogstad?' one man demanded: the villain of the piece hadn't had a look-in yet. This was 'obviously a significant lacuna', he said, although he didn't venture a reason why. Krogstad (the excellent Stuart Fox) had bided his time well, and aroused a murmur of assent when he suggested that Krogstad was the real hero of the play.

Which brought us back to Nora. Juliet Mitchell-Rossdale, who is writing a book about hysteria, suggested that Nora is 'in the grips of a hysterical dependency' at the beginning of the play, when she is going through all the 'little squirrel' and 'songbird' play-acting with her husband, Helmer. This reaches its peak during the 'hypersexual frenzy' of the dance of the tarantella. But by the end, when Helmer accuses Nora of being hysterical, this is his wishful thinking - she has already passed through it. In a similar vein, Dr Wooster noted the process of triangulation in the relationship between Nora, her husband, and Dr Rank. As he revealed later in the pub, this came to mind because he had just come from conducting a therapy group for married couples.

Like therapy, the evening raised more questions than it answered. But then, as any psychotherapist will tell you, and as the animated conversations spilling out into the night air seemed to confirm, talking about it makes it better.

New End Theatre, London NW3 (071-794 0022) to 27 Feb (reviewed here on Wed 16 Feb)

Further post-performance talks: Sun 13 Feb Sally Hughes QC; perf 6pm, discussion 9pm

Sun 20 Feb Jocelyn Chaplin (feminist psychotherapist) perf 6pm, discussion 9pm

Fri 25 Feb Roger Kennedy (psychoanalyst), format as described above

Sun 27 Feb Michael Meyer (translator)

Play pounds 9.50, pounds 6 concs; talk pounds 1

There will be an extra talk 4 Mar held at the Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 63 New Cavendish St, London W1, 8.30pm with Sue Lefton, cast members, Juliet Mitchell-Rossdale and Roger Kennedy, pounds 10 ticket only (071-580 4952)

(Photographs omitted)