Mabou Mines Dollhouse
4 stars ****
TAKE A FEW IMAGES that you might always have associated with the idea of Ibsen’s Doll’s House, the story of Nora Helmer and the dramatic end of her bourgeois 19th century marriage, which she suddenly sees to have been a humilating sham. Then cut, slice and splice those ideas through the imagination of a director obsessed with fierce variations of theatrical form and voice; and there you have Mabou Mines Dollhouse, as mind-blowing a version of Ibsen’s great play as Edinburgh is ever likely to see.
Set on a stage surrounded by chocolate-box layer upon layer of red plush, on a set like the cramped upper slice of a doll’s house, the play is accompanied from the start by the kind of sentimental live piano score associated both with Victorian melodrama and with early silent movies. It also contains wild, disturbing elements of toy-box imagery and Punch-and-Judy puppet theatre, nightmare Nordic images borrowed from the Ibsen of Peer Gynt, and a famous twist of theatre of the grotesque, in that all the men are played by very short, child-sized people, as if made small and absurd by their false presumption of superiority. And at the end, when the veil of romantic illusion is torn from Nora’s eyes, the show tranforms in a disturbing coup-de-theatre from puppet-play into opera, as if questioning whether any art-form born of the age of red-plush theatre can survive the harsh light of modern reality.
Just how interesting this compulsive investigation of theatrical form can be to a general audience is hard to say; and the actors’ cod-Norwegian accents seemed to me like a bit of a cheap shot. What’s clear, though, is that Lee Breuer and his remarkable company take one of the great, dusty monuments of European drama, and turn it into as continuously astonishing a piece of theatre as I’ve ever seen on the Festival stage. And Breuer’s partner and co-adapter, Maude Mitchell, gives a performance as Nora of breathtaking boldness, invention and courage. In her transformation from pouting domestic doll to naked, hairless woman facing the world utterly alone, she is never less than fascinating; and in the end, her metamorphosis is as moving as it is strange.