Ensemble Theatre, June 15


Edvard Munch’s most famous painting, The Scream, could be a depiction of Nora. She never actually emits that scream in fellow Norwegian Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (dating from 1879, 14 years earlier), but she’s screaming inside for most of its duration, and finally gives vent to eight years of frustration at her dysfunctional marriage. Part of the art of performing the play is to make the transition from silent scream to the “snap” moment credible: to signal the slow build underpinning it.

Chantelle Jamieson and James Lugton. Photos: Prudence Upton.

Ibsen denied it was a proto-feminist play in conception, although it was and is in reality, portraying a woman breaking the shackles of the patriarchy. Tampering with his genius is fraught with danger, and so it was a brave move by Mark Kilmurry, the Ensemble’s artistic director (and this production’s director) to ask Joanna Murray-Smith to adapt A Doll’s House for a contemporary Australian setting. Like any classic, only the play’s surface has dated, after all.

But Murray-Smith has done well. She’s deleted a couple of minor characters, trimmed the text, and given the dialogue a present-day slant that feels natural rather than self-conscious. She’s preserved Ibsen’s wit, and added dashes of her own, so we are reminded that the playwright’s lens was one of amused affection for all his characters, even as he subjected them to torment. Furthermore, she has intensified the sexual attraction between Nora and family friend Dr Rank, now called George, while keeping the latter’s drollery intact. “All my patients insist on living,” he tells Nora, “even when they have nothing to live for.”

Lizzie Schebesta and Chantelle Jamieson. Photos: Prudence Upton.

The play is Nora’s as much as Hamlet is Hamlet’s, and Kilmurry has gifted the prized role to Chantelle Jamieson, whose performance is something of a rollercoaster in parallel to Nora’s emotional emancipation. She is almost excessively animated in her itch to catch Nora’s flightiness and faux vivacity in the early scenes, before settling into a more convincing performance as the character gains complexity. But then she struggles to rise to the demands of the emotional breakdown, notably in the monologue when alone near the end, so the play’s impact is not as gutting as it should be. If Jamieson can dig deep enough to be more truthfully vulnerable in these later scenes, the production will instantly rise in stature.

It is a problem that, to a lesser extent, also besets David Soncin as Krogstad, the less-than-honourable financier who is prepared to blackmail Nora. James Lugton, meanwhile, is a fine Torvald. It’s crucial to Ibsen’s scheme that Torvald is not knowingly malicious in his treatment of Nora, simply pompous, self-centred, patronising and thoughtless, and Lugton puts a breezy veneer atop his breathtaking, laugh-inducing hypocrisy.

Chantelle Jamieson and Tim Walter. Photos: Prudence Upton.

Lizzie Schebesta is excellent as Kristina, Nora’s long-suffering, worldly and scheming friend, and Tim Walter is even better as George, giving the show’s most complete performance in combining the doctor’s wit, intelligence, world-weariness, thwarted love and mortal illness.

Veronique Benett’s naturalist set cleverly creates a sense of depth and space on the Ensemble’s tight stage, and her costume for Nora to wear to the party is suitably stunning, given its emphasis in the text.

Poor Nora tell us she doesn’t believe in miracles anymore, and, of course, there never were any. The closest is that, despite everything, she comes to understand that “love is about being free to be yourself”. Now Jamieson must let herself be free to be Nora.

Until July 16.