A Doll’s House
Susan Elkin | 10 Oct 2023 23:03pm
Photo: Jason Harris
Tanika Gupta’s reinterpretation of Ibsen’s (1879) play takes us to Colonial India in late 19th Century so it’s the same period. When I interviewed Gupta recently she told me that although she has lived in England all her life, most of her work is rooted in her Indian heritage. Her version of A Doll’s House dates from 2019 when it premiered at Lyric Hammersmith, directed by Rachel O’Riordan. Since then it has been set as a GCSE drama option along with three other “global majority” texts. It’s a compelling but accessible exploration of racial and sexual politics.
Niru is a young Bengali woman married to Tom, an English bureaucrat. Of course he idolises her but she’s not cut out to be his plaything although she pretends she is and there are, inevitably, factors in the background. It’s a very good fit for Ibsen’s story.
At the centre of Tower Theatre’s excellent production, adeptly directed by Olivia Chakraborty (Assisted by Krishmeela Rittoo), is an outstanding performance by Vaishnavi CG as Niru, Gupta’s take on Ibsen’s Nora. Apparently the Indian trophy wife, educated and sophisticated, she pouts, flirts, worries and pleads in a very convincing way until gradually we learn of the trouble she has got herself into as a way of saving her husband when things were difficult. Vaishnavi CG finds a lot of depth and nuance in the role until she finally breaks free. It’s as good a piece of acting as you’ll see anywhere.
As her husband, Micky Gibbons – his voice patrician and his manner lofty except when he’s overcome with tender passion for his “little Indian skylark” – matches her well. Tom’s racism is, of course, only just below the surface and the small school GCSE group sitting near me winced and muttered every time he said something patronising or belittling. As a couple they look striking on stage too because Gibbons is a tall man and Vaishnavi CG’s petite stature means that she barely reaches his armpit.
There’s high level support from Arthur Davies as Dr Rank, the family friend who is ill and in love with Niru. As the impoverished widowed schoolfriend Mrs Lahiri, Rachana Reddy is serious intense and a strong dramatic contrast to Niru. Janak Nirmal is powerful as the glitteringly sinister, but ultimately vulnerable, Das and Nina Ali delights as Niru’s servant who has looked after her all her life. She brings charismatic, fragile warmth to the character who, whatever Tom thinks, is a much more than a mere servant.
There are lots of scene changes in this play as we move from different rooms and the garden in Tom and Niru’s house. These are ingeniously managed by placing one or two characters downstage and moving props and furniture in the shadows behind them. Lighting designer Nick Insley and Chakraborty are very good and highlighting faces and using light to build character – and ambience. I also liked the blend of Indian and European classical music which covers the scene changes. It’s a neat way of stressing the two cultures and yes, of course, Vivaldi’s A minor violin concerto is exactly the sort of thing Tom and his friends would have listened to at soirees in Calcutta.
I’d read this version of the play – in connection with a piece I wrote when it was adopted as a GCSE set text – but I hitherto I hadn’t seen it. I’m glad I now have because Tower Theatre has done it proud.
First published by Sardines: https://www.sardinesmagazine.co.uk/review/a-dolls-house-3/