Like many of us, I went to see Mabou Mines’ version of A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen. It was stunning, in the literal sense. I found that most of the time my mouth was ajar. The visual images in the show were incredibly striking. The fact that Nora quite literally did not fit the set, she was too tall for the dollhouse, left no question that Nora does not fit into the world of gender roles and performativity in which she lives. She is stuck, bound, forced to be smaller than she is. All the men in the cast were little people in our world, but in the world of the play they were the norm, they fit the set, this was clearly their world. Interestingly there were times when characters existed outside of these constraints. A very tall woman on stilts, so tall that she could literally step over the walls of the (doll)house, appeared as death (as far as I could interpret it at least). She as a woman in the play is tall as the convention proposes, but she is so tall that the walls of the dollhouse do not hold her in, she transcends them and therefore is not stuck. She does not have to put on any other shape but what she is. Also, the run crew was a part of the show, and came out dressed in their black techie apparel at certain moments. They were not little people, and many (all?) of them were men. But they, like mother death, existed outside of the (doll)house, literally remaining outside of it’s walls.
Something that was very poignant to me was that all the men were little people. I intellectually understood that they were ‘normal sized’ people in the world of the play because the furniture, house, etc. was fit to their size, but viscerally I knew that they are a minority in our world. This contrast of minority in our world and norm/ oppressor in the world of the play was a very interesting one to me which was present in my gut throughout the performance. It made me remember that even oppressors are oppressed.
The performativity of the piece was astounding. The physicality was large, loud, and often literal. Nora’s voice was eerily high and so altered that it was difficult to understand at times. I found that I was very affected by the performativity, viscerally and intellectually, but not so much emotionally. My moment of good old fashioned catharsis came at the very end. After Nora has left the house, after a huge opera scene in which Nora is naked and hundreds of puppets sit woman and man next to each other in hundreds of audience theatre boxes all over the stage (calling attention to the fact that the reality onstage is our reality), When Torvald realizes his loss and shouts “Nora!”. He begins to call for her onstage but then goes offstage and wanders through the house and out an exit shouting “Nora!”. Nora, meanwhile, is naked, looking taller than ever elevated above the audience in a theatre box. Torvald is looking the smallest he ever has as he left the world onstage created to fit him (indeed the house has already been taken down by this point but there is still a small bed onstage) and comes out into the audience, a world in which he is very small. In this moment I identified with his vulnerability more than Nora’s new-found power and freedom.
Overall, I was very struck by the visual and physicalized theatricality of the piece, but because of that I did not develop strong emotional connections to the characters, everything remained at a distance and a bit of a shocking or funny joke or novelty. I am aware that this kind of theatre wants the audience to be aware of its performativity and not to enter completely emotionally into the world of the play, so as not to forget the outside world. It’s a bit Brechtian in that sense. So I respect what they did and I was affected by it, but when I left the theatre I did not feel moved to change something socially or politically about our world. I instead left the theatre thinking intellectually about what art is and can be. There were moments in the play where my emotions were stirred or where my breath was literally taken away, but overall I felt like a spectator to a performative world where I didn’t understand half of what was being said, but instead was seeing/experiencing themes, ideas, and physicalities. I enjoyed the use of Commedia and terentella immensely. I enjoyed the entire performance. I was moved by it in a very different way than I am usually moved by theatre that I enjoy. Should we keep the audience at an analytical distance, or involve them emotionally? Or both? Or neither? Mabou Mines’ ‘A Doll’s house’ was definitely an interesting experience that I am glad I had. I admire their creativity to go in and refurbish a classic, and I understand that in many ways they were updating it to our times. We are a visual culture, it was very visual. it was shocking to us just as it would have been to Ibsen’s audiences. I am now left pondering whether or not this level of performativity, to me, is the most effective means of making art. Which is not a bad thing to be left with.
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