Time Out, UK
May 14, 2009
Theatre - A doll's life
By Nina Caplan
Henrik Ibsen's 'A Doll's House' has been given a timely update at the Donmar. Nina Caplan meets its star, Gillian Anderson, to discuss how the play's exploration of feminism and finance is still relevant in 2009
Where does Ibsen's Nora sit in our supposedly post-feminist world? Is her place still in the home, or is the door she slams on her husband and children that so shocked 1879 Copenhagen now more of a gateway, to be passed through at will? The Donmar is attempting to answer these questions with a version of 'A Doll's House', updated (to Edwardian England) by Zinnie Harris and starring Gillian Anderson as Nora.
The actress formerly known as Dana Scully in 'The X Files' has since proved her talent on stage and screen, including a terrific performance as tragic heroine Lily in Terence Davies's masterly film of Edith Wharton's study of nineteenth-century upper classes in New York, 'The House of Mirth'. In some respects, Nora is the daughter Lily never got to have: a generation after Lily founders under her era's expectations of women, this British Nora walks out on them. But have expectations of women really changed?
Anderson thinks so. 'It's still a big shock in today's society if a woman leaves her husband and children,' she points out, 'but in those days the stakes were so much greater for women.' Anderson feels that Harris's repositioning of the text 'pares it down and contemporises it, so it is both dated and timely: recognisable, in other words.'
Certainly, it would be hard to bring this powerful tale of well-intended fraud right up to date: now, if Nora needed money to help her husband, surely she would just get a job. Still, one oddity is Harris's decision to make Thomas, Nora's husband, a politician - would his original profession of banker not be particularly timely?
It doesn't matter, says Anderson: 'There's so much about money and finances and financial ruin that you feel that everything about him has to do with money'. And the play questions the nature of fraud in a larger sense that is certainly relevant now: Nora's behaviour is prompted by love, the least fraudulent motive imaginable; whereas Thomas's seeming correctness - his rejection of Nora's actions - makes him an emotional criminal. These subtleties remain in Harris's update: he may be a politician but he is certainly, as the slang has it, a total banker.
Almost inadvertently, Anderson seems to keep returning to the subject of women's struggle for autonomy. She is planning a biopic of Martha Gellhorn, journalist and third wife of Ernest Hemingway, a woman a generation younger than Harris's Edwardian Nora. Gellhorn's story suggests that some of Nora's problems outlived even her newly updated lifespan: Anderson insists that people think first of Gellhorn's superb journalism, although she admits that Hemingway's extravagant machismo cast a long shadow ('how can you write your own novels while Hemingway's in the other room writing "For Whom the Bell Tolls"?'). The film will also deal with 'being a woman at that time and trying to be a journalist in her own right and get places that women weren't allowed' - an apt sequel, surely, to Nora's struggles.
The shadow Anderson has struggled to escape isn't male, although it will be forever associated with one: Agent Scully and the money machine behind her are a long way from the cosy confines of the Donmar. It's a swap that Anderson, who confesses she has only just started watching television ('I'm much less judgemental about it than I used to be'), is happy to make. While she's buzzing with nerves about a play in which she is in every scene bar one, she is looking forward to her Donmar debut. What is it about that space that makes it such a draw for big name actors?
'There's just something about that stage. It's very awkward, yet so intimate. This play takes place in one room: the stage will be dropped and the audience will feel like they're sitting in the library with the actors. There's that feeling almost of being in the round - it's terrifying and exhilarating.'
Anderson obviously craves that combination, although she's clear-eyed about her chosen milieu. 'I see a lot of theatre and the effort the actors put into it - they give blood, sweat and tears, often for a very lukewarm response.' Well, I point out, in film and television clapping isn't required. 'Some people have forgotten how,' she says sadly.
'It makes me think - what does one have to do? Why can't theatre be government funded in a way that would actually allow actors who are putting in so much effort to make a proper living? I mean, it helps keeps London going in terms of tourism - people come from all over the world and yet the people involved have trouble paying rent, let alone mortgages.' So we are back to money again. Although at least this time, the issue is an injustice that affects both genders. Perhaps that is progress.