London Theatre Review: A Doll's House at the Lyric Hammersmith
| By Sandra Howell
(Updated on Oct 25, 2019)
What a brilliantly inspired idea for Tanika Gupta to reimagine and set Ibsen’s A Doll’s House in nineteenth-century India at the height of the British Raj’s dominion over India; providing a critical commentary of British Imperialism. It is an excellent fit, particularly as Nora, now called Niru, is cast as a young Bengali woman married to Tom (originally Torvald), a white British civil servant working for the British government imposing British rule over India.
A Doll’s House was very radical and controversial when it premiered in Copenhagen in 1879, because Ibsen raised some of the gender politics of the day, including the lack of civil rights and independence for women. As most people know, during this period women were first the property of their fathers who ‘gave them away’ to become the property of their husbands. Women were regarded as inferior to men and treated as such.
Tanika Gupta’s writing allows us to view A Doll’s House from a 21st-century perspective, by adding race and colonialism into the mix. Niru, skilfully interpreted by Anjana Vasan, is very much Tom’s exotic pet, his ‘Indian Skylark’. Tom regards Niru as an indulgent child dependant on him rather than as an equal. Thus reflecting the British colonialists’ superior and racist attitude to their Indian subjects during Victoria’s reign, as well as retaining Ibsen’s social commentary about the role of women. The critical eye which is cast over British Imperialism in India is one of the key threads which Gupta has cleverly weaved into the play, together with the paternalistic attitude of men towards women, as shown by Ibsen.
Gupta’s adaptation tugs hard and smartly at the threads of racism and sexism prevalent during the Victorian era in British India. The position of impoverished widows, in Ibsen’s original, is even more stark in nineteenth-century India, as highlighted by Niru’s friend Mrs Lahiri.
Gupta’s additional dialogue makes many references to British colonialism throughout, by which we learn of; Indians dying in their thousands due to British rule exacerbating famines (by continuing to export food and failing to provide assistance), the railways, built by the Indians, being used to transport troops to quell anti-British rebellions. We also hear of how many British colonialists casually mistreated and abused their servants, when Tom’s friend Dr Rand mentions how Tom, as a lawyer, successfully defended a British colonialist who kicked his servant to death. Dr Rand is appalled and traumatised by this and the general oppression and racism of the British towards Indians. Colin Tierney’s Dr Rand is well-meaning but ultimately complicit as all he does is talk. There is also, possibly, a nod towards the impact of Brexit, when Tom comments about Making England Great, Dr Rand despairs at the resulting loss of “our humanity along the way.”
Vasan’s Niru is as an astute young woman who, knowingly, behaves coquettishly with her husband Tom. Very early on we see glimpses of Niru’s steeliness and determination which is much more evident by the end of the play. Niru knows how to charm to manipulate Tom’s paternalism to her advantage, by acting as the child, with no other interests than buying new things and caring for her children with the help of her nanny. Acting in this way is Niru's main survival technique and a behaviour learned from her relationship with her father.
Elliot Cowan plays Tom as an entitled and paternal man, who really doesn’t know his wife at all. Tom’s racism, snobbery and sexism is ugly when he discovers something Niru has done. He fears a scandal, which will affect his social standing. Tom viciously condemns Niru, threatening to cast her out to protect his reputation. What happens next is unpredictable, particularly in the context of a married woman in nineteenth-century India.
Although Gupta's production is highly original and innovative, this production sticks to the plot and structure of Ibsen’s original play. In this way and thanks to the talented cast, Gupta enhances, rather than detracts from, Ibsen’s play, building on the tension and shock of the original. It is well worth seeing this fresh take of A Doll’s House.
Tickets for A Doll’s House available from £18!
A Doll’s House is only playing at the Lyric Hammersmith through 5 October. Book your tickets now to secure your place at this stunning new reimagining of Ibsen’s classic.
Update (25 October 2019): The Lyric Hammersmith production of A Doll's House is no longer on sale. The above link will take you to the new Playhouse Theatre production starring Jessica Chastain, which hits the West End in 2020.