22 September 2011

Review: The Dollhouse

MELBOURNE FRINGE 2011
The Dollhouse
fortyfivedownstairs and Daniel Schlusser
16 September 2011
fortyfivedownstairs
to 25 September


It might be best to get to the fortyfivedownstairs for The Dollshouse before the madness of the Fringe begins. Just don’t regret missing it. Don't worry if you like or despise Ibsen, because this remarkable adaption will leave you with a new perspective. It's overtly theatrical, but feels like overhearing your neighbours fighting and you can't tear yourself away from the delicious uncomfortable intimacy.

It doesn't take long for Ibsen and nineteenth-century naturalism to turn up in any drama or theatre studies class. And it takes less time to realise that naturalistic dialogue and situations are far from naturalistic. As all scriptwriters learn, the art is in making the terribly contrived sound real and, even in translation, Henrik Ibsen is a fine starting point.

The opening of Daniel Schlusser's adaptation doesn't start with Ibsen. Nora (Nikki Sheils) is in a black slip, Torvald (Kade Greenland) is on his games chair with a big TV, Dr Rank (Josh Price) and Kristine (Edwina Wren) are talking about massage and Nils (Schlusser) has a microphone and is looking at vodka. Described by Schlusser as "hyper realism", their conversations are far from the known text ("Torvold have you seen my phone?") and feel improvised, but there's far too much order and design, and the heightened theatricality of the extended stage of cold beaten metal and the interaction with the audience and crew only adds to the sense of inclusion.

Schlusser has re-written Ibsen's story as its subtext. For all its deceit and lack of communication, when these people speak, they say what they mean. This is so unnatural, but the effect is so real. Perhaps it because we don't have to interpret the falseness, so are able to understand and feel for everyone on the stage. Or maybe because there is so much awkward humour in the tension and unraveling horrors. It’s more natural to try to laugh when things are bad than to make a serious speech.

This is the first time I've seen an Ibsen and totally got it. It must be as close to understanding what the1879 audiences felt like when they witnessed such a new style of writing and performance, and I'm betting that Henrik himself is gazing down and high-fiving Chekov at the use of Chewy costume.

And having a can't-see-the-acting cast doesn't hurt. All are so comfortable on the stage that even with the excessive fairy lights and tissues from Ben the sound operator, it's wrong to think that they are performing, as they are simply what Ibsen must have thought of. Sheils especially shows a Nora who struggles, without making us pity her or hate her. (And if you saw Nikki in Don Parties On, please see this so you know it was the play and not the actor.)

The ending may surprise. In 1880 Germans producers insisted on a new ending and Ibsen wrote the alternative saying, "I prefer, having learned from previous experience, to commit such violence myself, rather than surrender my works to treatment and adaptation by less careful and less skilful hands than my own."

If all adaptations were as skillful as this one, great writers would never have to worry.

This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com.

Photo by Marg Horwell



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