THEATRE / The revenge of the squirrel: Paul Taylor reviews A Doll's House at the Gate Theatre in Dublin

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The Independent Culture
WHAT a week it's been for the Irish. The leader of the Progressive Democrats resigns out of the blue. The Pope reaffirms his ban on contraception, and then along comes the news that Bono may be starting a bald patch.

For the papers over here, this has been the big talking point of the Dublin theatre festival. It all started when the U2 singer's so-called 'little secret' was spotted at one of the shows by the gossip columnist of the Irish Independent. From the way it was then taken up, you'd have thought we were talking tonsures. As it happened, I was sitting just a few seats away from the pint-sized mega-star and I must say it wasn't the alleged thinning that caught the attention but the rinse . . .

The other focus of interest at the Gate Theatre that evening was Karel Reisz's powerful production of Ibsen's A Doll's House, with a luminously compelling central performance from Niamh Cusack. Assheton Gorton's design is a clever mix of the realistic and the metaphoric. The action is framed by a proscenium within a proscenium, and in the Helmers' home, solid furnishings sit cheek by jowl with objects that are painted cut-outs.

It would be crass and pre-emptive to present Nora as imprisoned in a literal doll's house, since this is the radically new perception of her lot to which she must be dragged. Gorton's half-way house, though, straddled uneasily between a trompe-l'oeil-look toy-world and the actual world, alerts you to just the right degree to what is unreal in the foundation of this family's happiness.

Ian McElhinney performs Helmer as a man who was very probably born in full morning dress. He gives the stuffy bank manager's patronising treatment of his little 'squirrel' a relentless comic awfulness, his voice that of a father being showily patient with a child.

It's a striking account of a difficult role, though one which is more successful at conveying what a versatile pain Helmer is (he gives a quite hilarious display of martyred dignity when, even after his recent promotion, an old friend continues to call him by his first name) than it is at suggesting that Nora is not the only victim of the codes that have distorted their marriage.

Not all the supporting roles are well cast. Timothy Walker, in particular, seems to be playing Krogstad as a warm-up for some future portrayal of Dracula. With him, as with Helmer, you aren't really allowed to see things from a point of view other than Nora's. Luckily, you don't resent this as much as you might, thanks to Niamh Cusack's superb incarnation of the heroine.

Beginning as the tactical little girl, all feminine wiles and secret worries, she develops into a trapped, desperate animal pacing the floor of its cage, and then in the last act, as she carefully explains to her husband why she is leaving him, this Nora becomes a figure of spellbinding stillness, projecting the calm of someone who is staring deeply into some fundamental truth.

To 27 Nov, at the Gate Theatre, Dublin 1. Box office 010-353 1 874 4045

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