December 23, 2009

Ibsen's A Doll House... for a new generation

Earlier this month, I had a chance to attend a workshop reading of Ibsen's play A Doll's House put together by Blackcurrant Productions. This version was translated by Kathy Bischoping from the original text but set in a new place and time... I enjoyed it very much and met up with Kathy to find out more about this updated version of the play. Here is part of what we talked about.

HM: Why did you choose A Doll's House as a play you wanted to work on?

KB: I was looking for a scene for an aggressive doll puppet to play in (with a life-sized scene partner). I thought it’d be provocative for this un-Nora-like personality to be making Nora’s “here I’ve been your doll wife” speech. The concept’s changed…a lot! But, because the script I gave the actors left out all of Ibsen’s directives about emotions, I did get some unconventional readings. The pointed “frenemy” relation between Kristine Linde and Nora Helmer is there partly because Erynn Brook explored that edge in Kristine, not just the depressed desperation that’s in the stage directions.

HM: I know you translated the play from the original Norwegian into the English. How long did it take altogether, including drafts?

KB: I began around Christmas 2008, curious about differences in the three translations I’d read, wanting a modern, royalty-free translation, and stuck during the strike at York. The first draft took three weeks. Having to look the same words over and over tuned me in to how Nora loves her favorite words, excessively repeating “excessively,” and how various characters echo and mock one another. As Anthony Burgess, who wrote A Clockwork Orange,said, it’s more interesting to learn a language by throwing yourself into its great works than by learning to ask for a train station. I returned to the translation a couple times in 2009 and in July realized I could pretty well read Norwegian…about duty and daring, anyhow. Then I could polish it up more. It’s a beautiful language with a beauty distinct from that of English. It’s like a deciduous forest in winter – some parts you can see clear through, and other parts where the silhouettes conceal layers of depth.

HM: You've decided to set the play in Quebec in the mid 1960's. Can you share more about your reason for setting it in another place and time besides 1879 Norway?

KB: After some actor friends read the first draft, they said: “Most women who get divorced worry about child support, but Nora’s so rich, she’s got a Nanny, it’s easy for her.” They couldn’t stand her privilege, which is a very different criticism from what Nora received in 1879. This suggested moving her to a time and place in which she’d be less of a heroine would make her more interesting. 1964 Quebec was chosen because that’s when and where all married women in Canada finally won the right to borrow money without their husband’s consent . Not having this right is what leads Nora into the forgery that moves along the plot. Other elements of the script aren’t strongly rooted in time or place, so I don’t think 1964 Quebec is necessarily how the audience heard the story.

HM: What has been the audience's feedback thus far?

KB: Really positive, with lots of helpful suggestions for the cast and me! The Norwegian Embassy had supported this workshop most generously, so I’m glad to say the guests from the Consulate thought highly of the performances and translation. I loved how though it’s a tragedy, the audience began laughing in the first minute. People were very right in there with the characters’ struggles, flirtations, and dreams. For example, one woman told me she cried at the end because Nora (Lara Martin) leaves her husband (Rahaman Agiri) exactly how she’d left hers 15 years ago. Another person thought our production’s Nora was “really white,” always referring to her father as “Daddy.” Someone wrote how she was surprised to end up feeling sorry for Torvald as “the devoted, rejected” husband. Kristine and Krogstad’s (Adriano Sobretodo Jr.’s) mature, redemptive relationship came in for contrast to Nora and Torvald’s – in one analysis I received, because Nora and Torvald always try to appear ideal, that leads to all their lies. And several people were moved by the heartbreak of Dr. Rank’s (Philip Borg’s) love for Nora…though, hello, he’s hitting on his best friend’s wife.

The format of a reading was new to many. Some audience members said they’d like us to next put on a production in which the actors have more physical options than standing side by side. But others were drawn to the reading format, as in an email about the pleasure of “drawing the pictures of the action in my imagination” and a comment that always seeing our Nanny (Morgan Bargent) sitting at one end of the row of actors led to the hope of seeing more of her comedy with the obnoxious children. That our Maid (Jennifer Robson) became a strong narrating presence was seen as a creative plus.

HM: Finally, what are your future plans for this production?

KB: There are definitely a couple buzzing around! I’ve been speaking with a director who’s a talented performer of both dance and theatre works, about reshaping the “reader’s theatre” format, fully exploring the actors’ physicality and the whole space of the stage. I’ve also been writing back and forth with the South African creators of a remarkable short film of a scene from A Doll’s House and hope to bring our dollhouses together.

We talked for a couple of hours but I'm sharing some of the key things we discussed so you know what to look forward to. Stay tuned from more works by Kathy and Blackcurrant Productions. I enjoyed myself excessively at the reading workshop!

Photo Credit: Alex Naylor.