A Doll House


Smock Alley Theatre, Dublin

There has been such a surge in Irish adaptations of Ibsen in the past few years, adding Brian Friel’s Hedda Gabler, Frank McGuinness’s John Gabriel Borkman and Arthur Riordan’s Peer Gynt to a list so considerable it might posthumously secure the Norwegian playwright dual citizenship. Each has brought Ibsen into an Irish idiom, sometimes brusquely, but generally respecting the original 19th century Norway context, allowing for sympathetic echoes across time. Not so with Pan Pan.

While engagingly arch with his contemporary embellishments, director Gavin Quinn is here uncharacteristically faithful to the structure of a modern classic. Few others could make such loyalty seem subversive. Áine Ní Mhuirí’s maid, for instance, sets the scene with a recitation of Ibsen’s stage directions, as though his verbiage was enough to furnish the bare space of the new Smock Alley Theatre. By the time Judith Roddy’s exquisite Nora appears, pretty as a picture but admirably dangerous, spilling Christmas baubles and expensive toys, the elaborations of his dialogue already seems suspect.

A costume drama would try to palm off Ibsen’s leaden exposition as airy conversation, but Pan Pan’s curiously absorbing delivery, as brisk and psychologically invested as a line run, contentedly exposes the artificiality of naturalism.

That is how the production continues, with designer Aedín Cosgrove representing each character as a two-dimensional life-size cardboard cut-out, and using bold lighting shifts in primary colours to reflect any change in mood, just as Nora spells out the plot for her long-lost, happily reunited friend Christine (Pauline Hutton, long lost to the UK, happily reunited with us), while Ní Mhuirí reappears to offer the audience a Cliffsnotes commentary on the play’s themes and highlights.

This isn’t so much as a deconstruction as a reductio ad absurdum, emphasising clanging symbolism, the dramaturgical contrivances of offstage footsteps or whispered asides, and exaggerating the emotional disarray of Nora’s agitated dance, performed in a compelling frenzy by Roddy. Somewhere between mocking and deadpan, the approach is never boring, but it’s not clear if Quinn has formed any opinion about the play.

It’s certainly tempting to read it as an economic allegory; its here-and-now aesthetic making it seem less a feminist polemic about an infantilised woman abandoning her husband and children, than a story of selfhood almost suffocated by prosperity.

Pan Pan doesn’t push that reading, never settling on a governing concept, merely daubing the play with intertextual references and comic embellishments.

This makes it considerably less interested in the existence or consequence of Nora’s children than in the amusement generated by a costume party. Miraculously, Roddy and Dermot Magennis, as a ramrod-straight Torvald, retrieve the emotional stakes in time for the performance’s climax by delivering the dialogue, with slow precision, supine on the floor. From the literal translation of its title to that gesture, it seems intent on exposing the drama, but retreats softly when it realises just how fragile the play is; less a doll house than a house of cards.

Until Apr 28