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A Doll’s House

by on 26 February 2023

Child of the Raj

A Doll’s House

by Tanika Gupta after Henrik Ibsen

The Questors Theatre at Questors Studio, Ealing until 4th March

Review by Brent Muirhouse

Tamika Gupta’s reimagining of Henrik Ibsen’s play, A Doll’s House, set in 1879 Calcutta, India, is a thought-provoking and engaging production that successfully reinterprets the classic text for a contemporary audience.  Calcutta (today Kolkata) was the capital of British India at the height of empire, and British presence in the region was significant and deeply ingrained in the city’s social, economic and political structures.  As Indian nationalist resistance and anti-colonial sentiment gained momentum around the time of the play’s setting, the play retains the central themes and motifs of Ibsen’s original but introduces a new political context that creates a powerful dilemma of identity for the central character, Niru (Nora in Ibsen’s original script).

In Gupta’s adaptation, directed here by Meneka Das, Niru (Rushma Thapa) struggles to reconcile her Indian identity with her role as the wife of a British man, Tom Helmer (Ibsen’s Torvald, played by Tom Hilton), who runs the city’s tax office.  Against the backdrop of British colonial rule in India, a layer of complexity is added to the story, creating intricacies and miniature details highly apt for the analogy of the doll’s house in which Niru’s struggle for self, central to the play, takes place.

The play’s set is minimal, with a single room coloured in sage and teak, indeed evocative of a traditional Victorian doll’s house (though, it must be said, Brent Muirhouse himself never had one as a child, preferring the solitary company of an atlas of the world or a crew of cuddly toys).  It creates a slightly claustrophobic nature to the play, fitting symbolic for the feeling of the walls closing in around Niru’s world.  Similarly, the lighting and sound design are traditional and straightforward, allowing the audience to focus on the stellar central performance and narrative.

Although Ibsen denied that his play was an outspoken work of feminism, it is hard not to see this version as such, at least in part.  Rushma Thapa’s performance as Niru is outstanding, bringing a delicate balance of emotions and reactions which capture her inner turmoil and conflicts, as she navigates her place in a world where her identity is constantly under threat.  Her performance is nuanced and subtle, balancing moments of exaggerated joy and the celebratory dancing of the Kathak, an Indian traditional dance, with the moments of deep introspection and self-doubt, as the city in which she exists changes under control of external British rulers, a party to which her own husband belongs.  Tom Hilton’s performance as her husband is suitably patronizing, highlighting the power dynamics within the play and of the era, both patriarchal and colonial.

The small cast certainly has big reach and impact.  Premi Tamang’s performance as Krishna (Ibsen’s Mrs.  Linde) and Anoop Jagan’s as tax clerk Das (Krogstad) are strong, developing their characters beyond mere vehicles to move the plot forward.  Charlie McRoberts’ take on Dr. Rank also caught the eye, providing genuinely great comic relief when sneakily eating sugary barfi as a permanent, yet seemingly uninvited guest in Niru’s home, as well as handling the more tragic circumstances of the illness he carries throughout the play.

Gupta’s adaptation of A Doll’s House is a compelling and thought-provoking production that successfully reimagines Ibsen’s original play for a contemporary audience, which at Ealing’s Questors Theatre, is a diverse and engaged sell-out crowd.  The play’s exploration of identity and many of the fractures and inequities that resonated across society during the time of colonial rule continue to have a significant impact today.  A Doll’s House is a powerful reminder of the struggles that people face in their search for identity and belonging, and one that I contemplated leaving the theatre to the streetlights of suburbia, walking out into a chilly, February evening where the quandaries of 1879 seemed much closer than hundred years ago.

Brent Muirhouse, February 2023

Image courtesy of Questors  

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