Having moved to the London venue after revitalising the Sherman Theatre in Cardiff, Rachel O’Riordan launches her first season as artistic director of Lyric Hammersmith with a captivating new version of Ibsen’s proto-feminist play.
Instead of updating the play Tanika Gupta has relocated it to Calcutta in 1879. Nora is now Niru (Anjana Vasan) and she is married to English official Tom (Elliot Cowan). They have children, a comfortable home and he ensures she wants for nothing. He’s besotted with her, enamoured with what he regards as her exoticism; he applauds himself for his progressiveness but clearly expects her to conform to his standards of how a wife must behave. He discourages her from eating the sticky, delicious jalabii in case she puts on weight and calls her his “Indian princess”, his “expensive pet”.
Gupta’s adaptation places Niru in a more complex cage than Nora. Ibsen’s exploration of the patriarchy becomes as much about race and the arrogance of colonialism. We never see the world outside the Helmers’ home but there are hints of it in the way Niru discusses how English wives treat her, she is caught between two cultures, and the imbalance of power between them is even more marked; arguably, there is more at stake for her if she leaves.
Vasan is radiant as Niru, a woman who understands her value as an acquisition, but who is also capable and intelligent. When she is blackmailed by Assad Zaman’s Das, over money she borrowed to care for Tom when he was ill, she quickly sees how fragile a construct her marriage is, but this does not break her.
Though there’s a degree of puff and swagger to Cowan’s Tom, there’s a charm to him too. His Tom is not a tyrant, rather a man swaddled in the privilege of his class and race; it doesn’t take much for him to come apart. Cowan captures this contradictory fragility. Tom erupts with anger at the prospect of a dent to his reputation and then collapses at the thought Niru might leave him.
O’Riordan’s production makes much of the physical disparity between them. Cowan towers over Vasan. He has to crouch so she can attend to his necktie. He can easily pick her up, and does so when merry. O’Riordan handles the increasing tension well and makes the moment when Colin Tierney’s melancholy Doctor Rank fastens bells around Bella’s ankles as sinister as it is tender.
Lily Arnold’s striking courtyard set, with its delicate tree and its imposing doors waiting to be thrown open, reaffirms the sense of Niru being kept in a pretty prison. It all adds up to a dramatically satisfying, textually revelatory production, anchored by Vasan’s luminous performance.