THEATRE / Strained emotion: Paul Taylor on A Doll's House at the Minerva, Chichester

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
I don't want any melodramatics,' Torvald warns Nora as matters head to a crunch in this new translation of Ibsen's A Doll's House. To an audience watching Annie Castledine's production at the Minerva, Chichester, that line is likely to resound with particular irony, for, as she has staged the piece, it is only in this final climactic encounter between wife and husband that melodramatics are decisively eschewed.

Castledine is a director of great resource and versatility, and one of her talents is her fine feel for the suspenseful creepiness needed by a psychological shocker such as Gaslight or a proto-feminist melodrama like Lady Audley's Secret. But although Ibsen's play also turns, like this latter, on the inexorable exposure of something the heroine is desperate to conceal, there's no way, short of severe misrepresentation, that A Doll's House could be rechristened Little Nora's Secret.

That's something you're in danger of forgetting, though, at points in this production. The emotional heightening is too tinged with the lurid - whether it be the doomy red light that seeps all over the scene after Nora has danced the tarantella, or the sad foreboding of the Tchaikovsky music that underscores certain passages, or the silent-film, open-mouthed horror of Sharon Maughan's Nora as events spin out of her control.

The huge, black, railinged gap in Simon Higlett's scarlet set and the moaning of the wind outside are intended, presumably, to suggest on a physical level the fragile moral basis of the Helmer marriage. A pity, though, that their domestic world is so sparsely realised and that, squandering tension in disbelief, the mailbox where Krogstad's fatal letter gets posted should have been bizarrely located on the outer side of the drawing-room door.

Once deposited beyond melodrama, Maughan brings a splendidly grave dignity and clear-eyed courage to Nora's culminating confrontation with her husband. For the most part, however, her co-actors give her little to play off. Not nearly patronising or pompous enough, Peter McEnery's Torvald makes a surprisingly slight impression, while Nick Reding's Krogstad, sleek, sparkly- eyed and at least a decade too young for the part, looks more like an advertisement for the healthful side-effects of stress than a man ground down by grim adversity. Only Jane Maud strikes the right note throughout, her Mrs Linde showing you a woman who has been rigorously schooled in life's injustices and knows the loneliness of independence. Unsoured, though, by her deep disillusion, Maud's Linde walks into the relationship with Krogstad with her eyes wide open, but not wide-eyed.

If the production ends most movingly, its general stylistic slant on the play risks giving the impression that these are exceptional people in exceptional circumstances, whereas Ibsen's point is that the unhealthiness of the Helmer marriage is all too commonplace. Nor has the drama dwindled into a piece of interesting social history, the battle now decisively won. It was to counter such complacency that Christopher Hampton, the translator of this version, wrote his 1976 play Treats, a drama in which the heroine slams the door and comes back and is so torn between an attractive bastard and a scrupulous, considerate guy who can offer her a painless but passionless life that you end up feeling the type of door she needs is a revolving one.

'A Doll's House' is at the Minerva, Chichester, until 2 July (Booking: 0243 781312)