Unravelling the shack

A Dolls House, adapted from Henrik Ibsen’s original by Emily Perkins. Directed by Colin McColl, with Laurel Devenie and Damien Avera. Produced by ATC at the Maidment in Auckland.

I’ve never been a huge fan of the early naturalists like Chekhov or Ibsen. I find myself admiring them for what they did in their own place and time, holding up the mirror to bourgeois audiences who’d previously been gorging themselves on bumptious frippery, but unable to recognise my own life, values or times within those 19th century European domestic beats.

But when I heard that Ibsen heavyweight director Colin McColl had teamed up with novelist Emily Perkins for a revised approach to Ibsen’s A Doll’s House I was tempted.

The production translates the story into contemporary New Zealand, and does so in a way that’s visually minimalistic and highly integrated visually and acoustically.

After a haunting tableau, the opening scenes are pedestrian but solid, like life. Laurel Devenie as Nora and Damien Avera as Theo (Torvald in the original) work through the familiar dance steps of a married couple with the usual burdens: money, kids, work, tiredness. They oscillate between genuine sparks of love and friendship, and cautious negotiations of precipitous conflict. There’s a distinct sexual chemistry to it all, but you also get the feeling that sex might be a sort of safe place: a refuge from reality.

If you’ve ever been shacked up – more so if married –  then you’ll probably see something familiar in the way they play and fight. But it was the play-fighting in which the grey zone and real danger lurked.

The middle section consists of support characters unwittingly and almost innocently weaving their various webs around Nora and Theo. First, Nicola Kawana as Christine turns up and pokes holes in Nora’s comfort zone. Paul Glover turns up and rips the wholes wide open. And Peter Elliot turns up as Gerry (Krogstad in the original) and tries to walk right in.

I’m not into spoilers, but it’s worth the price of entry to see Laurel Devenie’s portrayal of a modern New Zealand woman. Her unravelling in front of her family and friends is sometimes gradual, and sometimes rapid. But as each of a series of untruths come home to bite her, she also seems to become that much more wide awake.

It’s always sad when people break up. But is it any worse than playing charades for the rest of your life?

Perkins removes the drama from the urbane, claustrophobic banker’s apartment of Ibsen’s original. Rather, she puts him at the epicentre of New Zealand’s socio-economic debate: housing. He’s a building contractor, having won a large subdivision for a Mr Lee (or is that Li?).

Not just a builder, but an eco-builder. Theo and Nora live the good life: lifestyle block, far animals, rainwater, all that. Nora’s husband is the perfect catch: yuppy ambition with a hip sense of DIY, familiar to anyone who’s hung with architects. If only it paid the bills …

McColl’s usual collaborator Tony Rabbit’s set and lighting is typically minimalistic and coded. The look is strictly urban monotone. It’s got no conventional furniture at all, but abounds with furnishings that are surreal as they are cute. “All this stuff!” Nora shrieks, flinging the material detritus of their lives here, there and everywhere. It gives the tragedy a comedic edge, and – literally – the actors plenty of physical stuff to play with.

I often feel the same way about Rabbit’s sets as I do about Ibsen: disengaging. But this had me smiling from beginning to end. Nic Smillie’s costumers continued the metaphor in monotone and – by some majestic trick – so too did John Gibson’s quirky sound design, a repeated grey-noise motif that sounded like nothing so much as your dreams getting sucked down the plug hole, backwards.

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