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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Donmar Warehouse


  Toby Stephens and Gillian Anderson/Ph: Alastair Muir

When she was writing this fresh, new version of Ibsen's ground-breaking 1879 play, quite what Zinnie Harris thought would be gained by transposing the action from Norway to 1909 London is hard to say.

Nor is it immediately obvious why the job of the patronising patriarch who Ibsen's heroine leaves has been changed from banker to politician. Both professions are equally despised these days.

But arriving, as Kfir Yefet's starry and atmospheric production does, at the peak of Britain's biggest ever parliamentary scandal (members of parliament have almost to a man and woman been found milking their expenses at the expense of the taxpayer) there are lines of dialogue here that superbly capture the mood of the current times.

"As politicians, our staple is trust" declares a strutting Thomas - Harris's English version of Ibsen's Torvald - at which point the Donmar audience let out a collective snort of derision.

As the newly promoted cabinet minister Thomas, Toby Stephens delivers the line to Gillian Anderson's Nora with all the swaggering self-importance of a man convinced of his own omnipotence - and a little more to boot.

Anthony Ward's design suggests a newly-occupied government residence by setting the action before a wall of towering, unfilled bookshelves, in front of which Anderson's demure Nora busily swishes about in long silky dresses while being wifey and fragrant.

Fragrant is the term once famously used by a British judge to describe the long-suffering wife of yet another real-life disgraced politician (this one was convicted of perjury), and this Nora is every inch the decorous companion.

Anderson still has star status from her days in The X-Files. But her career on the London stage has been more solid than sensational. In the West End she played opposite Roger Allam's ex-lover in Michael Weller's hotel-set romance What the Night is For. At the Royal Court she was the psychologically brittle artist in Rebecca Gilman's The Sweetest Swing in Baseball.

Both plays were set in the comfort zone of modern America. This time Anderson proves her mettle with a very English Nora whose accent shows no trace of the American twang which this Chicago-born, though London-raised actress is much more used to delivering.

Thomas treats Anderson's slightly flushed and breathless Nora, like a recalcitrant niece. Demure she may be, but she is alluring too. Compared to the excellent Tara Fitzgerald's austere friend Mrs Lyle, there is a sense of repressed sexuality about Nora that explains much, including what excites Anton Lesser's outwardly cuddly but inwardly hard Dr Rank.

But the real sexual charge here is not generated between Nora and her husband, but the vengeful and blackmailing disgraced politician Kelman played by a terrificly fevered Christopher Eccleston. The scene during which he threatens Nora with ruin has a torrid edge. And tellingly, theirs is the only relationship without deception.

My one reservation about this rewarding evening is that Anderson's flushed, breathless Nora shows little sign of a suppressed intelligence to go with her sexuality. It makes the climactic change from submissive wife to rebellious female hard to credit. Unlike, say the distance travelled by Stephens's Thomas, the best of this production's performances.

In the first act Stephens portrays a man whose gentle brand of chauvinism would not be out of place today, and in the third a man whose moral fibre is revealed as having no spine to attach itself to. But then, as Harris shows, that's the thing about politicians.


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