The realism of Henrik Ibsen is a difficult beast to tackle: the exhaustive scenes of wall-to-wall emotional
nuance can often be struggled with if done too ambitiously. This is why the production of A Doll’s House
at Peterhouse this week, in its restraint of over-ambition in favour of pure drama, was a securely
successful interpretation of the Scandinavian script.
A Doll’s House follows a housewife, Nora (brilliantly played by Dominika Wiatrowska), who, during the
encroaching Christmas season, has her life entirely changed when various people come to visit her
house. After cases of blackmail and threats, the reality is revealed and we get to see the true character
of her husband, Torvald Helmer (played excellently by Joseph Wolffe) who has used her like a doll;
controlling and abusive like she is a pet to be trained or an ornament to be scrubbed.
Directed by Rishi Sharma, who also had to stand-in for the role of Dr Rank with a convincing
performance despite the time constraint, this production chooses for a more traditional interpretation of
the play, making good use of the theatre at Peterhouse, with a quaint living room of Christmas
decorations, as if the financial turmoil brought about by the aftermath of the season -that which
symbolises the lives of the household- is constantly foreboding. The enormous door at stage left was
interestingly made use of as like some dramatic opening to the outside world, that which Nora never gets
to see until the very end. Overall, the set design was well-rounded and works well in its realist style of
imitating life as if this room were indeed in some playhouse. The choice of costumes of the period also
worked well in this regard.
The choice of sound design was interesting, not just for the various sound effects throughout but also the
use of music. During her moments of stress and anxiety, a spotlight appears over Nora alone and as she
talks to herself in hurried fear as we hear the ominous pressure of what sounds like a digeridoo. I wasn’t
too sure about the use of Tarantella Napolitana, the quintessential Italian folksong, as it seemed to fall
into a bit of over-use, but it was not enough to stain the scenes. The lighting indeed was effective and not
at all over-indulgent, as the majority of the play was in a warm, realist lighting, the moments of spotlight
and blackout were much more sudden and effective in contrast, especially in the final blackout at the
The direction of characters was certainly thought-provoking, especially in the ferocious arguments
between Wolffe and Wiatrowska where everything is brought to light. Unfortunately, as what usually
occurs with Ibsen, sometimes the conversations can become inconsistent, where characters in
discussion can seem stilted and tiresome if they don’t move as they talk but seem strangely overly
choreographed if they do. The production did fall into this trap at times, but the actors and direction were
qualified enough to keep the pacing of scenes alive and convincing.
This rather traditional interpretation of an Ibsen classic, I would argue, is a great piece of student theatre
to see for its maturely competent take on the script. In a theatre scene such as Cambridge theatre where
most productions of classics seem to take a new and overly ambitious interpretation and setting, it is
often a breath of fresh air to see a piece of theatre articulated in a way that goes for a more traditional
and safe approach with the script, and indeed it works wonders. Although I would not say this play is for
everyone, the directions this particular production takes were able enough to make the complex themes
made manifest and dramatic for an exciting piece of theatre. As a result, I would recommend it perhaps
as a definitive production of the play: not too ambitious and yet not too circumspect.