Friday, 3 August 2012

pretend you know the way out of the trap

Somewhere between reading A Doll's House in my late-teens, seeing Janet McTeer play Nora when I was 22, and the electric shock of the Young Vic production that's about to close, I took against Ibsen's heroine to such a degree that I went out of my way to avoid her. What I did see in the years between was two productions of Hedda Gabler that made me fidget with boredom: Richard Eyre's at the Almeida in 2005, which reviews said was brilliant but to me felt so agonisingly dreary even the wondrous Eve Best, playing Hedda, couldn't save it; and Lucy Kirkwood/Carrie Cracknell's modernised version at the Gate in 2008, which I wrote about with minimal enthusiasm. In my befuddled brain, Hedda and Nora became conflated: two silly, selfish women who might have been constrained by the absurd patriarchal edicts of their times, but made their bad deal worse through thoughtlessness and egoism. (You might well say the same of me when you read what follows.)

For the first 15 minutes or so of Cracknell's Young Vic Doll's House, Hattie Morahan's Nora was that appalling woman: a flirtatious ingenue, all wide eyes and self-indulgence. When she asks her old friend Kristine to tell her “all about yourself”, then proceeds to run her mouth off about imminent wealth and her adoring husband and lovely children, knowing full well that Kristine is a) desperately poor, b) widowed and c) has no children, she's so abysmally insensitive I wanted to shake her. But then something brilliant happened. She talked about her work. Two weeks after seeing it, I can't say if it was a subtle twist of Simon Stephens' translation, or a sly emphasis in Morahan's performance, but in that speech Nora transformed before my eyes, and I became gripped by her. In working, in sitting up all night copying, writing, focusing on words, Nora had begun – without even quite knowing it – to find herself. And from that moment, I knew: this would be a Nora in which I would see myself.

The circumstances, of course, of course, couldn't be more different. But I honestly think that a few years of co-habiting has brought new piquancy to A Doll's House, has made me appreciate it in ways I couldn't have at 19 or 22. I felt odd reading reviews of it when I got home: although they were brilliant and perspicacious, the production they described wasn't quite the one I saw. How could it be? What I saw was lived experience. What they saw was a house with weird windows where opaque walls should be and a woman who overdid it on the wide eyes and choked speech and fluttering hands. I know precisely when they registered those things, when those things became irritating and problematic: I registered them too. But I shrugged them off, hypnotised by the inside truth about the disillusionments and compromises, the hopes and nourishments, of long-term relationships.

What I particularly recognised was the exhausting, nerve-rattling struggle to keep up a facade. At a basic level, that's about how you look, the vexation of varicose veins and Frida Kahlo eyebrows and a persistent pot belly in an airbrushed age; but at a deeper level, it's about appearing to cope with several conflicting demands at once. Your partner wants one thing, many things, of you, while your children, if you've got them, want an/other/s (and for years after having kids, I felt like I was playing being a mum; it was such a relief when another mum said this to me, too). The house itself has expectations, that you cook and shop and tidy and generally maintain; the extended family needs attention, and so do friends; bills need paying, demanding that you work; never mind the real work, whatever it might be (in my case, writing), that gets pushed further and further off the agenda. A few days after seeing it, I was struck by the thought that I do Nora's tarantella all the time: my version is a wild dervish dance around the house, on the all too frequent evenings when I attempt to cook dinner, engage with the kids, do laundry, answer emails and wash all the plates I'm not maniacally spinning, so everything can be done before my husband gets home. Why should that be a consideration? You may well ask.

Nora embodies everything (middle-class, privileged) women (who are educated, resourceful, and should bloody well know better) will do for the sake of a quiet life. Secrets and silences, rolled eyes and bitten tongues. On the comic side, I look at the bags of sweets she hides and see the books I have squirrelled away in drawers and on unexpected shelves because I'm not supposed to be buying new books because I don't read them fast enough. Less amusing is the inevitability of feeling patronised/taken advantage of when you're the person who works from home in the gaps between childcare, even when those things aren't in any way intended. I really wish I'd bought Stephens' text because I recall him doing something else illuminating in the final scene, something infinitely more brilliant than what I've found in the fusty old OUP World's Classics text that's been gathering dust on the bookshelf. Nora is talking about opinions, and says something along the lines of: all Torvald's opinions are her own, because it has always been easier to adopt them than to formulate anything else, least of all anything contradictory. It's so much easier to shut up than to argue.

Marriage, though, has forced me to learn to use my voice. You can't survive it if you don't; you certainly can't teach kids how to deal with conflict, how to discuss or debate, how to express their emotions (as they get older, and spend most of their time arguing, this is becoming an ever more pressing concern). Nora leaves her marriage because she is horrifically disillusioned – but what the happily ever after never tells you is that marriage is a concatenation of tiny disillusionments and uncomfortable compromises, which slowly chip away at the marble edifice you created in your mind in that magical moment of saying yes until what's left isn't Rodin's Kiss (the thrill of adultery in perpetuity), but a misshapen lump, all jagged edges and awkward angles. Marriage means accepting – as Nora, understandably, isn't able to do – that there is a point beyond which people just don't change.

But it also means being brave enough to show someone else your absolute worst, and trust that they will accept it, and keep your secret safe, and gently encourage you to grow. It means knowing that the other person is worthy of that trust: patently, Torvald Helmer isn't. Instead that courage is present in A Doll's House in the meltingly beautiful scene in which Kristine offers herself to Krogstad. As played by Susannah Wise, Kristine here is tentative, pragmatic and loving all at once; she makes it clear that together, she and Krogstad can make each other better, stronger, happier. Listening to her, Nick Fletcher's Krogstad visibly began to glow.

A Doll's House is more than a play about marriage/long-term/co-habiting relationships, more than a play about women's ongoing struggle to assert themselves – Andrew Haydon's review brilliantly articulates how much more. Do I diminish it by identifying with it so strongly in gender- and feminist- (and, against all best efforts, heterosexual-) specific ways? Even asking the question feels like a devaluation of female experience, as though a work of art isn't big enough unless it speaks not primarily of women but of some predicament relevant to mankind. Two days after seeing A Doll's House, I had another theatrical self-confrontation, and that question of identification was raised even more pertinently. The show was Greyscale's Gods Are Fallen and All Safety Gone, which writer/director Selma Dimitrijevic first staged in 2008 with women playing the characters, but which she presented at the oh-so-brilliant Almeida Festival two weeks ago with men taking the roles. This was shortly after the row sparked by Equity arguing for more roles for women, which made a chance experiment look more like a morally dubious choice. (To be fair, in the same festival, the TEAM's RoosevElvis had Teddy and Elvis played by women: a nice bit of gender rebalancing.)

I happened to see Gods Are Fallen not on the night when a real-life mother and daughter shared the stage with the male actors (Sean Campion and Scott Turnbull), but on the night when a (female) sign-language interpreter joined the action and a caption board hovered overhead. Ordinarily I avoid access nights because I find sign-language so exquisite I can't take my eyes off it; here, the integration of the interpreter made her infinitely less distracting. Which left plenty of space to notice how quick, how easy, it was to read the two men as women. They called each other Mum and Annie, and so that's who they were.

What Dimitrijevic conveys so exquisitely in this piece is the banal but acute combination of love and frustration that makes up mother-daughter relationships. As Mum and Annie paced across the stage and their conversation – about a bath, Annie's boyfriend, Mum's refusal to socialise with Annie's aunt, and a cup of tea – moved in decreasing and expanding circles, I thought of the conversations I'd had with my mum the previous week (four: she was more than usually homesick), how we had essentially talked about the same thing in each one, sometimes using the same words with different emphasis, sometimes developing the idea driving the conversation, sometimes retracting. It's what we do all the time. Each time Dimitrijevic restaged the scene, I recognised something else: an angry retort, a needling question, a thwarted expectation, a swallowed disappointment. And beneath it all that love, that helpless, burning love, of two people who expect more of each other, to whom they give more of themselves, than they would anyone else.

I identified with it so strongly that when the piece takes a 90-degree turn in the final section I was broken in three. In the discussion at the end, I wanted to tell everyone: that was me and my mum! That was us! Instead, I was startled to hear other people in the room voice that thought. Not women: men. One man after another confessed to feeling the same connection with the piece as I had – and they had felt it quite specifically because men were playing the women. If women had taken the roles, they speculated, they wouldn't have identified with it so directly.

This month has been so busy with work – setting up Dialogue projects, rooms, actual reviewing while Lyn Gardner, exciting exciting, polishes up an Olivia book – that I've slowly disintegrated. Sometimes I can't see theatre when I'm this tired and frazzled: I can't concentrate. This month, it's been a glorious escape from the churn of my brain – even if I have been meeting myself coming back. Shivering at non zero one's You'll See (Me Sailing in Antarctica) on the roof of the National Theatre, I discovered that my memory is even worse than I'd thought, that my dream for the future isn't of some great success for me or my kids but to have my parents move back to England, and that the image of my death I keep before me at all times is entirely unsentimental, in fact pretty gruesome. (Ah, bother: just discovered that Hal Hartley's Ambition has been removed from youtube so I can't link again. Sad.)

Back at the Almeida festival I watched Lost Dog's exquisite dance piece It Needs Horses with wide-eyed wonder laced with horror. It lasts just 20, maybe 25, minutes, but packs in so much – spoilers to come if you haven't seen it. It starts with a savage image of desperate hope and thwarted ambition, as two dilapidated burlesque clowns beg for our money, our attention, our permission even. As power shifts between the pair it develops into a fierce, hilarious, challenging satire of male-female relationships, particularly when the man attempts to turn the woman into a sexual object, and she takes charge of the situation, far outstripping (not quite literally) his paltry imagination and reducing him to the powerless object. It ends with what I read in retrospect as a condensed version of A Doll's House, in which the woman performs and performs, pacing like a horse around the dusty big-top floor, until she is so tired, so appalled by the meaninglessness of her endeavour, that she must stop and, effectively, slam the door. That moment when the woman steps out of the ring is electrifying. I watched her standing absolutely still, gazing out at the distant future, as though at the edge of the sea deciding whether to walk in and never look back, and her self-determination made me shiver head to foot.

In the middle of all this was a night of genuine escape: Atlas Sound at the Scala. I feel appallingly smug about having reviewed the first Atlas Sound album in a Christmas round-up of stuff the Guardian had missed, significantly less smug when I remind myself that I all I'd discovered was the singer from Deerhunter, a band I wasn't cool enough to have heard yet (and when I read that review, which is really quite rubbish). The gig was bonkers: in interviews, Bradford Cox comes across as imperious to the point of terrifying, but instead of being intimidating on stage he was hilarious, words erupting from him between songs in an absurdist stream of consciousness, until the point when he decided he'd talked too much and instead played a blues-rock tribute to a raccoon he once knew called Saxophone. But when he played songs from Parallax, looping his guitar and vocal until the sound cascaded and shimmered, time and air and bodies became molten. On the album he shows us pictures of the stars; playing live, he transports us to the milky way. I know that sounds corny, ridiculous even, but that's the thing about transcendence. Part of what you transcend is language itself.

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