… except in 2010, when there were three.
Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House must be the least Christmassy Christmas play of all time. It’s the story of the end of a marriage. Torvald Helmer is a bank manager. His wife Nora is a spendthrift. The play begins with her getting a gentle telling-off after Torvald comes home to find that she has been over-extravagant in buying Christmas presents for their children. The central problem of the story, or so it seems, is that she secretly took out a loan to pay for a family vacation. She told Torvald the money was a gift from her father, whose signature she forged on the bond three days after the old man died, and since then she has been working to pay off the debt. Unfortunately, this leaves her open to several layers of blackmail.
But the real problem of the play is the marriage, the metaphorical doll’s house of the title in which Nora is confined by her unimaginative husband. One level of the plot moves things towards a happy ending in which all the secrets are out and the household is financially stable once more. But at the same time, the character of Nora is developing towards a realization that she and Torvald are incompatible as man and wife. And so it turns out that the last thing to be heard in the play is the sound of the door slamming shut as she leaves the marital home for the last time.
That sound effect, and all that it stood for, caused a sensation when the play was first performed in Copenhagen in 1879: that a wife might choose to walk out of her marriage in order to discover herself may today be the basis of innumerable popular plays like Shirley Valentine, but it was then widely considered scandalous. The play was banned in Britain, and in Germany the leading actress agreed to perform it only if Ibsen changed the ending, which he did, reluctantly. But it was also recognized as a significant work of social realism…
… which is why Herbert Fritsch’s production, that opened at Oberhausen in Germany on October 29, 2010, was so very strange.
Fritsch ignored realist conventions altogether and instead reworked the play in terms of German art theater, with its heavily stylized performances and costumes.
At the center of it all is Manja Kuhl’s extraordinary portrayal of Nora as almost literally a doll, with a vast red wig, huge false eyelashes and a short but voluminous dress, part babydoll and part bell tent. We first see her lying prone on the stage, fluttering her legs as she gorges on forbidden sweets.
You know at once what kind of show this is going to be from the fact that there aren’t actually any sweets (it’s all done in mime) and that the set consists of nothing but a two-dimensional Christmas tree. Almost everything is going to be created by the actors’ performances and changes in the lighting. And almost everything is going to have a thick layer of symbolism over it. Which suits us very well, because of the way Fritsch chooses to symbolize the state of Nora’s marriage.
When Torvald arrives, played by Torsten Bauer, his chiding isn’t quite as gentle as Ibsen’s script suggests.
He bends her over, lifts her skirt and petticoats and spanks her.
He then sits down on the stage, leaving her with her skirts still over her head, and takes a closer look at his handiwork.
This sets up one of the central motifs of the production: throughout, the doll-like Nora is touched and manhandled by everyone, and most of all by Torvald.
The second spanking comes at the end of the first act (though this production ran the three-act play through continuously from beginning to end), and it is the longest and most enjoyable. Nora has had a visit from Krogstad, the man who lent her the money. He happens to be a bank employee who is threatened with dismissal and wants Nora to put in a good word with her husband – or else. Torvald finds out about the visit and is displeased, so over Nora goes again.
The third scene comes early in Act II, when Nora accuses him of being petty in his attitude to Krogstad. So he bends her over again and lifts her skirt,
… but this time she manages to talk her way out of it.
When the production opened, there was a scandal, caused not by the ending but certain scenes near the beginning. Though Fritsch maintained that the spankings weren’t meant literally and weren’t an endorsement of domestic violence, some dogmatists insisted that a man spanking a woman is something that should never be represented, in any circumstances or for any reason – which shows, I guess, how much the pseudo-liberal, neo-puritan, would-be progressive thought of today unwittingly has in common with the theater censorship of yesteryear.
But the row didn’t do any major harm. Manja Kuhl rightly won an award for her remarkable and versatile performance, and in 2011 the show was filmed for television by the German station ZDF, spankings and all. It’s available on DVD and, as you can see, it’s well worth getting – even if you don’t speak German!