While there have been many productions showcasing the talent of London’s Afro-Caribbean actors, those from South Asia have been sadly under-represented, writes Christopher Walker.
So it is with enthusiasm that we greet this new adaptation by Tanika Gupta of Ibsen’s great classic A Doll’s House.
Gupta has basically written her own play which strays far from the spirit of the original.
It succeeds on its own terms, and is also a showcase for the brilliant talent of Anjana Vassan, supported by a strong cast. But Ibsen purists will be critical.
Tanika Gupta is an experienced writer who cut her teeth with BBC radio drama. As such, she has a good ear for dialogue and is not afraid of political writing.
In her adaptation of A Doll’s House we must forget a close-knit Norwegian town in 1879, and instead transport ourselves to Calcutta under British rule.
The central character, Nora, is now an Indian woman – Niru – and her husband is no longer Torvald the bourgeois Norwegian banker, but Tom Helmer a British colonial administrator.
Much of the business of the play remains unchanged, but this audacious transportation of Ibsen’s set-up does have consequences.
It introduces the issues of race and colonial oppression, and while Ibsen’s feminist argument is still there, it is somewhat drowned by them.
Male audience members no longer squirm, as I have seen them do, as their infantilisation of women is exposed and dissected.
Gupta’s colonial themes gives sexists something to ‘tut tut’ at, and in consequence lets them off the hook.
As such it has lost the thrust of Ibsen’s work, and I worried about the many schoolchildren in the stalls getting a very muddled idea for their A-levels
This is not to deny that Anjana Vasan’s performance is outstanding, and we can almost forgive Gupta’s taking liberties as it has given Anjana her wings.
She is a delight to watch and listen to. As in Ibsen’s original she is a woman trapped in a marriage where she has to flirt and do tricks in order to get her way.
She has a powerful sisterhood in her faithful servant Uma (Arinder Sadhra) and her long lost friend Mrs Lahiri (Tripti Tripuraneni).
These three are strong on stage together, and I hope we see them united in other future work. They rail against the way they are trapped in a patriarchal world.
Elliot Cowan plays the patriarch we are set up to despise – Niru’s husband Tom Helmer.
In Gupta’s version his sexism takes on a racist element. Colin Tierney plays Dr Rank, the family friend who is slowly dying, who rants against the shortcomings of British rule in India (you rather wonder why he’s there).
The third male character is the wicked Kaushik Das (Krogstad in the original) who has trapped Niru into an unauthorized loan where she has forged her father’s signature.
Assad Zaman is very good in this role, and demonstrates a versatility which should be seized on by casting directors.
In this version Niru’s children are never seen. This downplays an important element of her dilemma – whether to stay trapped in this situation.
Whilst Gupta has kept Ibsen’s ending, it has lost a lot of its impact. Not least the absence of the famous slammed door.
In 1879 the finale itself was an immensely powerful push to the nascent feminist movement.
As one contemporary critic wrote “that slammed door reverberated across the roof of the world”. Sadly it does not do so here.
A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen, in a new adaptation by Tanika Gupta, plays at the Lyric until October 5.
Tel: 020 8741 6850