A Doll’s House

Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre, July 26

Matilda Ridgway and Francesca Savige. Photo: Seiya Taguchi

Matilda Ridgway and Francesca Savige. Photo: Seiya Taguchi

When Ibsen’s A Doll’s House premiered in 1879, the door that Nora slammed behind her at the end of the play sent out shock waves.

It’s not going to generate the controversy that it did then – not in our society anyway – but this finely tuned Sport for Jove Theatre Company production keeps you on the edge of your seat.

As for the play’s relevance, you don’t need to look further than the all-too-regular news stories about men threatening, even killing wives and children, as a result of ugly separations to know that many women still find themselves trapped by men, circumstances and lack of money.

Director Adam Cook takes a traditional approach with a period production that is faithful to Ibsen. It’s clearly been staged on a relatively tight budget but it is so beautifully paced and performed that it reverberates with a clarity and truthfulness that is utterly absorbing.

Hugh O’Connor’s simple set features a plain back wall, inset with three doors, which becomes slightly translucent under certain lighting (Gavan Swift) so that we glimpse the comings and goings of the characters. Carefully chosen pieces of furniture suggest the period, along with O’Connor’s costuming.

Matilda Ridgway’s lovely performance as Nora is at the heart and soul of the production. Initially she is giddily girlish as she plays at being the doll-like wife and little songbird her husband Torvald so frequently refers to. But as reality intervenes in way Torvald would never have thought possible, and the bars of her gilded cage seem to close ever tighter around her, a different Nora begins to emerge. Her final stance is deeply moving.

Ridgway’s face is wonderfully expressive as emotion after emotion chases across it. She behaves in a slightly different way to each of the other characters – Torvald, her old friend Kristine Linde, who has fallen on hard times and arrives out of the blue hoping to find work now that Torvald has been promoted to head of the bank, family friend Dr Rank who has long been in love with Nora and is now facing death, the housemaid Helen who has effectively brought Nora up, and her young children.

And then there’s Nils Krogstad from whom Nora borrowed money to fund a year in Italy that saved Torvald’s life. Not only does Torvald not know where the money came from but Nora forged her father’s signature on the contract. Since then she has been struggling to pay the loan back without Torvald knowing. Now Torvald has decided to sack Krogstad from the bank and give his job to Kristine.

Douglas Hansell is excellent as the morally upright, pompous Torvald, who is misogynistic and domineering without ever realising that he is being anything but the perfect husband. Some of his comments about his wife’s role in life (namely to look after him and their children) triggered gasps from the audience, but Hansell plays it without becoming a one-dimensional villain. His love seems genuine even if he has no idea who his wife really is beneath the identity he has created for her.

Francesca Savige is quietly contained as Kristine who believes Nora needs to grow up and take responsibility for what she has done, Anthony Gooley is suitably creepy as Krogstad, while gradually revealing the troubled man beneath, Barry French is warmly genial as Dr Rank and Annie Byron touching as Helen.

Thom and Bill Blake are cute, cheeky, confident and convincing as Nora’s young sons (roles they share with fellow ATYP students Massimo Di Napoli and Noah Sturzaker).

From start to finish, the production keeps you riveted. At the performance I saw, a young woman behind us, who presumably didn’t know the play, was almost hysterical with excitement at the ending, which had clearly taken her by surprise and knocked her for six. Thrilling.

A Doll’s House is at the Seymour Centre until August 2.

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All’s Well That Ends Well

Seymour Centre, April 3

Francesca Savige and Edmund Lembke-Hogan. Photo:  Seiya Taguchi

Francesca Savige and Edmund Lembke-Hogan. Photo: Seiya Taguchi

With a new production of All’s Well That Ends Well, created for the large York Theatre at the Seymour Centre rather than for one of its outdoor seasons, Sport for Jove confirms once more that it is one of Sydney’s most impressive independent companies and its artistic director Damien Ryan an exceptionally fine director of Shakespeare.

One of Shakespeare’s so-called “problem plays”, All’s Well That Ends Well is rarely seen. It is a tricky piece: a dark comedy set against a backdrop of war, in which Helena, a smart, virtuous, beautiful young woman does her all to win the love of Bertram, a young French count and seemingly undeserving young whelp who treats her with disdain. He doesn’t love her so doesn’t want to be forced to marry her – fair enough – but his rejection is brutal.

The happy denouement is achieved thanks to a bed-swapping trick and an implausible back-from-the-dead scene – but Ryan’s intelligent, bold, contemporary production takes all this in its stride and not only gives us a compelling drama, with plenty of humour, but one that is very moving at the end.

In a nutshell, Bertram’s mother adopted the orphaned Helena after the death of her father, an eminent physician. While Bertram views her in sisterly fashion, she loves and desires him.

Helena follows Bertram to Paris where she cures the king of a fatal illness. As thanks, the king allows her to choose any husband. Bertram is horrified when she picks him. Though forced to marry her, he refuses to sleep with her and flees to fight on the frontline in Italy, vowing that he will never be her husband until she can get the ring off his finger and bear his child.

Helena sets out on a barefoot pilgrimage and eventually encounters three women, one of whom is being courted by Bertram. Through their help, she finally wins her heart’s desire.

Battles of all kinds rage in the play. A literal war provides part of the backdrop but love and sex are also frequently referred to in military-like terms.

Ryan’s production begins with Bertram (Edmund Lembke-Hogan) sitting on a sleek, glossy black four-poster bed playing a war game on a gaming console, the sounds of battle filling the air as Helena (Francesca Savige) enters in shorts, tights and red Doc Martens to do the hoovering.

Antoinette Barboutis’s set design centres on the one clever, versatile structure, which transforms from the four-poster bed to a sauna-like steam room, military training equipment, a field hospital and Helena’s deathbed. Apparently there are sightline problems if you sit in the side seating blocks but from the front it’s a very effective devise that morphs quickly, making for fluid scene changes.

Ryan tells the story clearly and inventively, driving his production with a hard-edged, modern, punchy energy, complimented by David Stalley’s sound and Toby Knyvett’s lighting. At the same time, the strong cast handles the language exceptionally well, by and large, with the meaning and poetry shining through.

There are lots of clever little touches, which illuminate and entertain without feeling at all gimmicky. Helena is seen reviving a swatted fly to illustrate the magical healing powers she inherited from her father and will use to save the king, while the use of smart phones for Bertram’s rejection of Helena and her bedding of him work a treat.

As for the male nudity in the scene in which all the bachelors are presented for Helena’s consideration, it’s very funny yet apposite. Without knowing most of them, it really is a meat market.

Portraying the three women who help Helena as nurses at a field hospital for wounded soldiers is also an intelligent decision, further marrying the themes of love, sex and war.

The performances are robust and considered across the board. Lembke-Hogan has a strong stage presence and manages Bertram’s sudden emotional conversion at the end so well that it is genuinely moving. Against the odds, we are left feeling that a happy ending between he and Helena is genuinely possible.

Robert Alexander is a standout as the king – frail and at death’s door one minute then in commanding, authoritative form the next, while George Banders brings emotional depth and comic nous to the role of the cowardly Parolles.

But all the cast – which also includes Savige as Helena, Sandra Eldridge, James Lugton, Eloise Winestock, Teresa Jakovich, Megan Drury, Chris Stalley, Sam Haft, Robin Goldsworthy, Chris Tomkinson, Damien Strouthos and Mike Pigott – deserve praise.

Running for three hours and ten minutes, there are times when you feel a little editing might not go astray but no matter. This is a great chance to see a little-staged play in a clear, intelligent, funny and visceral production.

All’s Well That Ends Well is at the Seymour Centre until April 12. Bookings: www.sportforjove.com.au or 02 9351 7940