Monday 30 July 2012

Gods Are Fallen and All Safety Gone – Almeida

Selma Dimitrijevic's production of her play Gods Are Fallen and All Safety Gone is one of the most perfect pieces of theatre I have ever seen.

It's about 45-50 minutes long; the writing is spare, funny, and acute; and the form that she hit on for this production (the play itself has already been produced by other directors in Moscow, Glasgow and her native Croatia) is playful and inventive, allowing multiple fresh perspectives on the text even as we watch. It is also beautifully, cleverly, carefully, intelligently performed by Scott Turnbull and Sean Campion.

It's such a good production, that I actually feel a bit reluctant to really tell you too much about it. But that's a bit like saying “writing about theatre spoils it”, which would be a dumb thing for someone in my position to suggest. I'm also torn between wanting to tell you everything, and not wanting to spoiler it to death.

As it happens, though – and this should possibly come under the heading of “Full Disclosure” – I spent a day watching an early rehearsal of Gods Are Fallen..., so my experience of watching the actual show was already a slightly unusual one. (And one that also makes me think, “spoiler” isn't a term that can be applied here – there's just knowing different things before you go in which will make you watch in different ways)

Re: watching a rehearsal – actually, without ever feeling Stockholm-Syndrome-y, I think it actually increased my appreciation of the play, but not in a way that makes me think that I wouldn't have similarly adored it if I'd only seen just the final production, going in with no information at all.

There's something very interesting about watching a rehearsal process. After all, I was essentially watching a piece of theatre for pretty much seven hours. Perhaps a slightly meta- piece of theatre, since I was also watching the director interacting with the two performers in between [is there a proper word for run-throughs-of-sections?]. And yet, at no point did it feel like I was sitting through something *long*. Technically, this was watching more theatre than Gatz or Lipsync, but somehow, possibly due to a combination of being in a large, bright airy room, and the theoretical freedom to come and go as I pleased (or at least pop out for a cigarette occasionally), it almost felt shorter than sitting in the dark at the Almeida watching the “finished” piece. “Finished” gets scare marks, because there is still something beautifully *open* about this “end result” - like it's not possible to actually “finish” it. Just that putting it on in front of people marks another stage in its existence.

I should try to describe the form and content of the thing. If I were to be reductive, I think it'd be possible to describe Gods... (the title is from a quote, and I can't help thinking that, out of context, it would work better as “All Gods Are Fallen and Safety Gone”, which is what I keep calling it by mistake, but that's just me) as a variation on a well-enough known textual strategy; namely, the one where a scene is repeated, but with subtle, or not so subtle changes made in every repetition (other examples of the genre include Caryl Churchill's Heart's Desire, and a sketch by David Ives involving a first date and a hotel reception bell – I'm sure there's one by Ayckbourn too – and probably countless other examples).

Here the scene is a simple one of a (30-something?) daughter going to see her ageing mother. The subjects are simple: having a bath, a cup of tea, travel, the weather, boyfriends and relations, another cup of tea. The mother and daughter are being played by Scott and Sean. A young Geordie and an older Irishman (the latter last seen, by me, in Chris Haydon's production of Wittenberg at The Gate). In the first scene, the acting is also more-or-less entirely non-naturalistic. I would say they are just saying the words, except that's not quite accurate. It's not toneless or colourless. The emphases are all in the right places, but what's also being done is that the actors are pacing about at quite a frenetic pace on the (almost) bare stage, and firing off their lines almost as if they don't have time to think about them, perhaps a bit like a speed-run/line-run.

(In the rehearsal I saw, the company took this process/game even further, also rushing round a kind of rough, oversized kitchen dresser, having to touch certain points on it at the same time as speaking and genuinely having no time to “act”. It was interesting to see how this game had been incorporated into the presented performance, and the extent to which the actors had managed to keep the game *fresh*, even after further rehearsals.)

At the rear of the stage, seated at a table (and, well, they were playing Scrabble, I thought they were doing a jigsaw puzzle) were a *real* mother and daughter. Now, I happened to know that they were a real mother and daughter, because Selma had explained the concept to me at the rehearsal, but it was clear from the Q&A session afterwards, that audience members who hadn't known or been told had made that assumption.

It is an inspired additional touch.

On one level, it kind of returned the dimension of “naturalism” removed by having the mother and daughter of the text being played by men. On possible way of reading the staging felt like the men were enacting a possible future scenario that could plausibly be experienced by the mother and daughter. There was also the fact that, being actually related, the two women plainly did share both physical similarities and occasional behavioural tics/gestures (in this case, the way they flicked their hair out of their faces). These are the sorts of things that (un-related) actors could spend months trying to perfect for a naturalistic performance, and never quite capture. Here, the staging could be read as a kind of job-share, where the men did the speaking and meaning, and the women did the physical manifestation. The quality and carefulness of their self-conscious, and unselfconscious spectatorship was also brilliant to see. You could see where the script stopped them in their tracks, the points when one or other (or both) of them would look up from their game and just watch; all the while, plainly not wishing to draw any undue attention to themselves, but aware that they were legitimate subjects for spectatorship on a stage with only themselves, their table and chairs, and the two actors.

Not wishing to give away how the piece develops over the course of its four short acts, I shall only say that in addition to the clever intricacy of the staging, the piece also gently delivers a massive wallop of an emotional punch. And it's one that, also modifies yet further all the potential readings you could have had of the piece hitherto. Ideas of where it takes place, why the scenes are repeated with variations; all of that makes a renewed sense by the end.

So, to conclude (for now – I expect I shall end up writing about the piece again), I'll just restate my starting postion: A simple, complicated idea perfectly executed. Intelligent, emotionally intelligent, and somehow seeming to conjure a huge picture of the world from almost nothing; Gods Are Fallen and All Safety Gone is one of the most perfect pieces of theatre I have ever seen.

Friday 27 July 2012

Ten Billion - Royal Court

[possibly needs a bit more detail...]

As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead unintentionally killing me. They do not feel any enmity against me as an individual, nor I against them. Most of them, I have no doubt, are kind-hearted, law-abiding people who would never dream of committing murder in private life.

And yet, this is where we seem to be as a species...

[the below written directly after seeing the show a week ago...]

Ten Billion is the most frightening piece of theatre that you will see this century. And it's hardly a piece of theatre at all. It's a man, a scientist – an actual scientist – standing in front of you explaining just how fucked we really are.

The subject of Ten Billion is the earth's growing population. It is primarily a list of facts. I wrote a lot of them down. If I repeat the facts, then you quite possibly won't bother going to see the show. And I think you need to see this show. I think everyone should see this show. Not because it'll do any good, or because it might change something, but because it's sobering to be told where we already are. And because I've never seen this information presented this starkly by anyone ever.

If one of the things that makes art great is the way that it perceives connections between things, then this outstrips every artwork I've ever seen simply by constantly demonstrating connections behind everything. To the extent of giving you synaptic vertigo. It makes explicit what is hidden far more effectively than the most impassioned political agit-prop or intricate avant-garde gesture.

[All the above written by hand on the Tube. I next wrote: “I'm kind of hoping that the whole show is an elaborate hoax, merely an imaginative response to the problems about which it talks”]

There's a lot more to say about Ten Billion than the above. There's also the question of how to review it. Is it most useful to précis the information and arguments made? To convey a sense of the theatrical experience? Or to attempt to analyse what and why and how it finds itself in a theatre and how it does and doesn't function as theatre?

The piece's relationship to “theatre” is fascinating. What do we mean when we talk about theatre? It might be justifiable to describe it as (generally): somewhere where we go to see something made-up that strikes us as “truthful”.

In this respect, Ten Billion feels very different. The man standing in front of us is apparently the actual man who has arrived at the actual conclusions that he's actually telling us about. Already we are being presented with a lot more reality than we're generally accustomed to. It's a level of “reality” left pretty much untouched in theatre except by Rimini Protokoll and, oddly, David Hare. As such, the usual “problem” of Verbatim Theatre seems slightly side-stepped; the problem usually envisaged as “the unseen editorial hand”. Here, since the subject is, well, the subject's subject. In theory we should be able to trust him to have made intelligent, representative choices as to what material to include in this 65-minute lecture.

But, here already, we can discern a couple of interesting theatrical problems.

In theory the guy has all the time he wants. He could certainly have taken another hour. Why hasn't he? Is this all the information there is, or has he just shown us the best bits. If he's only showing us the best bits, is it to make his message the most effective it can be? Because he or director Katie Mitchell don't trust us to last much longer with this barrage of facts and extrapolation? Or because if he told us more, some facts that don't fit as well with his thesis might surface?

In a funny way this show is about trust as much as anything. It is, after all, just a sole guy telling us some stuff he believes. Right?

We're taking a lot on trust anyway; that he is who we're told he is (why do we believe this? We never normally do); that his research is sound (even harder to verify: what do I know about science?); and that his conclusions are therefore correct.

(Oddly, perhaps the piece's biggest nod to “theatre” is also its biggest trust-trick; Emmott delivers his lecture from what he tells us is a “spookily” perfect reproduction of a corner of his office in Cambridge University. At one level, it's the sort of set we're so used to seeing in a theatre that we barely think about it. On another level, is seems to ground this man in the reality of both his profession and his credentials. But, when you think about it at all, it's an odd choice to have made. Sure, a lot of it could be traced back to Katie Mitchell's extreme-naturalism-tic, but I'm not convinced that quite covers it.)

In a funny way, I was forcibly reminded of medieval Christianity. Of how one had to put your faith in the man at the front telling you things. Telling you things as if they were sure and certain incontrovertible truths. And, moreover, telling you truths that were pretty upsetting. Tales of future hellfire and damnation and so on. And that's what Ten Billion is telling us.

(I'd like to point out at this stage that I'm not especially climate-change-sceptical. It strikes me, that if a vast majority of scientists all agree on something – gravity, the atom, DNA, etc. – then they're probably right. I'm given to understand that Emmott is on the extremely pessimistic end of the thinking on the subject of over-population and global warming, but I found what he said and the logic with which he pursued it incredibly persuasive.)

Ten Billion is a picture of a human race with maybe only a generation and a half until war, famine, plague and pestilence all but eradicate the human race. We've heard a lot of that before. What I've never heard before is anyone saying: “It's ostensibly too late to do anything about it now.”

Emmott is even perhaps most interesting when he's debunking some popularly held ideas about climate change. He's not worried about “oil running out”, for instance. He reckons there's still plenty more to be found. But more interestingly, he doesn't think that individual contributions (usually of the hair-shirt variety) can now make any difference.

He explains a lot of the processes by which items that we consume use resources, but doesn't suggest we should stop consuming them. By the time a car has been manufactured, it has already done so much damage to the environment, he suggests, that it hardly matters whether or not we drive it. And if you don't, someone else will anyway.

His one possible solution sounds something like a single global crisis-government be formed, and that it be unelected, and that its power be supreme. He reasons that the changes which every government would need to make in order to prevent a global catastrophe are such that no one is ever going to vote for them. It's not often you see a piece of theatre which argues that only extreme environmental totalitarianism can save us.

That said, I'm not sure everything that he said was watertight. It felt like sometimes there is a bit of slippage. For example, at one stage he points out that there is now the potential for the largest lethal global pandemic in human history. He talks about the Spanish 'flu that swept Europe after WWI, which killed between 50 and 130 million people – between 3% and 8% of the world's then 1.86bn population. This one, he said, would be worse. Would be spread further and faster. And, he said, it was not a matter of “if” but “when”. I wanted to put my hand up. Surely that sort of massive cull of the world's population, while tragic, would surely alleviate the incredible strain on resources that form the main subject of Ten Billion.

What really grabs you about the piece is the bleakness, however. The passionate bleakness of this probable future. The resigned insistence that there really isn't anything we can do on a personal level. In an odd way, it is kind of liberating. It goes way beyond: “It doesn't really matter if you take a plane rather than Eurostar”, to a place that implies: “Well, there's not much point in worrying about posterity”. It's a kind of guilt-free nihilism, with the mantra: “It doesn't matter what we do now, we're all fucked anyway”. I have to confess that I found it incredibly powerful and seductive.

The last line of the piece [SPOILER ALERT] is perhaps the most chilling and resonant, though. Emmott describes asking a colleague – one who he makes a point of describing as rational and intelligent – if he could only teach his son one thing, what would it be?

“How to use a gun,” his colleague replies.

photo Stephen Cummiskey

Tuesday 17 July 2012

Timon of Athens – National Theatre

[Seen in final preview performance. But, paid for my own £12 Travelex ticket day seat at rear of circle, so can do as I bloody well please. Press Night embargo observed because I'm still kinda old school]

Nicholas Hytner's new production of Timon of Athens is a strange beast. It's opening in mid-July, it's Shakespeare, and it's got Simon Russell Beale in the title role. And yet it's an odd shape for a summer flagship. Perhaps there's a certain amount of trade-off in the thinking – on one hand, it's Shakespeare, it's got a star, and it's got a kind of relevance what with is being about money an' all; on the other hand, it's got to be just about Shakespeare's least popular play, lots of people are probably going to miss it, and, well, let's not throw too much money at it.

That said, for all the curious cynicism you smell around the edges of this already cynical little play, Hytner has at least had a reasonable looking stab at giving the play a fair, contemporary hearing. Much of the musing that follows has been made possible by the sheer clarity of the production.

There's a chance you might not know the plot of this least-known, most minor of Shakespeare's tragedies and, I secretly suspect, there's not much chance you're going to bother going to see this production – it's not, after all, the kind of avant-garde fun that Postcards' ever-dwindling readership appears to thrive on. So I make my apologies now for the following being a bit describe-y and spoilery.

Timon of Athens is essentially a play about an idiot. Yes, true, there's a superficial level of amusing contemporary mischief to be made with the fact that first of all it is a Shakespeare play about bankruptcy, and secondly, that it happens to be set in Greece. But, sadly for Hytner, and all other contemporary directors, that's pretty much where the actual relevance ends. What happens, you see, is that at the start of the play Timon is very rich – here the first scene is set at opening the “Timon Wing” of an art gallery with a big, big painting on its big flat wall. Over the next few scenes, we see Mr Timon generously throw his money around – paying a servant's dowry here, posting a friend's bail there, giving jewels to the guests at another of his sumptuous dinner parties. All in front of the same big flat wall, with the painting removed to reveal a big, big window, giving onto a variety of recognisably trope-y views across London (here, his mansion in Kensington; there, his office in the City; elsewhere, the House of Lords).

Then, lo and behold, by about a third of the way in, he's frittered all his money away. Oh no! What to do? Well, Mr Timon sends his servants whizzing round his friends asking to borrow a bit of cash. Mostly in multiples of 50,000 (the currency is as unspecified as the are numbers changed). And, well, as you can probably guess, his friends refuse. The press gather outside his house, with its big, big window set in a big flat wall, as do those to whom he owes money, and to whom Shakespeare gave lines.

To give Hytner his due, much of the contemporary updating stuff does work quite well. We're ably given an insight into the modern, British equivalent of Timon, and he's also unfussily re-gendered a bunch of characters so that there are plenty of women given subsidiary roles beyond the pair of hookers and unspecified number of dancing girls dressed as Amazons who can be found representing womankind in Shakespeare's original.

Indeed, perhaps it works a bit too well to begin with. At the start, we're presented with a self-satisfied, preening, condescending plutocrat, a Gatsby-like void whose only redeeming feature is his apparent generosity. As soon as his money runs out and he is refused any more, he immediately descends into a misanthropic funk that lasts until the end of the play.

What's odd is that Shakespeare doesn't really do much to challenge this.

Timon has two kind of half-nemeses: Apemantus; the big cynic, and Alcibiades; the Occupy London organiser (we'll get back to that). Of these, Apemantus is the only one really given any kind of dialogue with Timon's despair, and he is uniquely ill-placed to conduct it as he's already established that he hates everyone, even while Timon still had cash.

So we've got a play that basically depicts an idiot's hissy fit. Don't get me wrong, it's actually quite entertaining. Timon's post-bankruptcy U-turn is a fine opportunity for Shakespeare to spend a long time decrying people, money, life, and, well, “What have you got?” On the other hand, it's not quite the same impasse as the one in which, say, Hamlet finds himself.

You gave away all your money to people you thought liked you, and now you feel let down? Oh well. It's very hard not to conclude that Mr Timon could do with getting over himself a bit.

So, let's instead turn our attention to Alcibiades. Rendering him as some kind of London riotsy/Occupy London type is an interesting decision. Ciarán McMenamin plays him with a Northern Irish accent, but I don't think that's meant to be relevant (the actor is Northern Irish, after all). More interesting is the fact that in an odd scene in which Alcibiades approaches Timon with a pair of prostitutes in an attempt to relieve him of his money...

(Oh, in the second half, when Timon leaves Athens he stumbles across an enormous stash of gold in the forest/building site where he has resolved to end his days. Sorry, I should have mentioned earlier, but it seemed too silly.)

...well, here, those prostitutes become about 20 Occupy London (or whatever) protesters. This might have simply been Hytner trying to defuse an odd scene, but the possible inference is that Occupy London protesters are all prostitutes; and secretly, (as revealed by the action of the scene) driven by a desire *for* money. Which is a boldly Žižekian point about hidden reverses if ever I saw one. But, whatever. If you didn't know the play, you wouldn't worry about this staging of that scene. It just seems an odd place for something which for the most part is being quite explain-y to end up.

Also interesting, politically, is the way that Hytner seems to be using the play to tell The Rich, that in no way do The Arts Community like them as people. Yes, we like your money, thank you very much, and, yes, we will be obsequious to a fault in order to obtain it, but please, for the love of God, don't mistake that for actual friendship. Which is a pretty bold move in a funding climate like this.

Actually, this is possibly the key to the bits that do fizz a bit here. Elsewhere, Tom Robertson turns wastrel, Timon-debtor Ventidius into an almost treasonable Prince William-alike Yah. And you do get the feeling that Hytner is enjoying using the play to needle away at a certain mileau; the champagne receptions are just that bit too well-observed to be mere coincidence.

On the other hand, I'm not quite sure that in doing so, and partly in casting Simon Russell Beale, he hasn't quite gotten the most available out of the play. Simon Russell Beale, while often articulate, funny and even moving at times, does seem to be phoning in a performance that we've all seen him give before (I know that's not how acting works, but, seriously, I think we're at a point now where we can admit that SRB does very much tend to find himself in a lot of the characters he plays). Hilton McRae offers an understated, burringly Scottish Apemantus, and struggles to reconcile his character's apparent anger with the ennui that it's produced, winding up as little more than a younger, low-grade, epithet-riddled Victor Meldrew.

Ultimately, this is a perfectly good account of the play. The set in the first half is just about the most under-designed thing – although there's a moment where it finally fucks off at the end of part one where, for three minutes, the stage actually looks pretty good. The acting, once you get used to it, communicates the meaning of the words, and gives an impression of how the characters feel. What one never really glimpses, however, is the extent or savagery of the very real anger which is just being flirted with here.

Sports Play - Nuffield Theatre, Lancaster

[playing London at the Chelsea Theatre 30th July - 4th August. Go!]

[actual review probably still needs some working on, but it feels like I should post this and then maybe carry on working on it, or post a second review hereafter]

At last! To Lancaster, for the long overdue British première of Austrian Nobel Prize for Literature winner Elfriede Jelinek's 1998 text-for-theatre Ein Sportstück.

In Lancaster, the piece was performed as part of a three-day conference on Jelinek, including several lectures for which I wish I could have stayed, and a round-table discussion: Plays in Translation on the British Stage, in which I took part, alongside the director, producer, dramaturg and translator of the piece, plus Giles Croft of the Nottingham Playhouse (late of The Gate and NT) and Peter Mikl, the Director of the Austrian Cultural Forum in London. I mention this to explain away any undue level of extrinsic expertise that I might have unconsciously absorbed and accidentally regurgitate during the course of this write-up.

Ein Sportstück (translated here as Sports Play, although A Sports Piece is equally possible) is perhaps one of Jelinek's most famous “plays”. I give it scare marks since a lot of people might blanch at calling it a “play”; theatre-text might be more comfortable. The text itself, now published by Oberon in Penny Black's startling good English translation, runs to 121 pages of dense type. And we're not talking pages of:
Character: Says three words.  
Next Character: Replies in four words. 
-type dialogue either. This is more-or-less 120+ solid pages of type. If the whole play were to be performed, it would take about 5 hours. Here, production company Just a Must take 2hrs7mins (1hr49 in Berwick, according to Twitter) to do about 30 pages of text, with some, y'know, bits where they do stuff other than speak.

The reason that Sportstück is one of Jelinek's most celebrated plays (by which I might mean: one of the plays by Jelinek I'd actually heard a lot about) is the seminal (première) production by the enormously highly-regarded (former-East) German director, the late Einar Schleef. This ran at five hours in the “short version” (seven in full), and *still* didn't stage all the text. He did, however, have a massive budget and 142 people on the stage. Produced in 1998 at Burgtheater, Wien he also had a context where his use of a Fascistic aesthetic, borrowed/inspired in part by Leni Riefenstahl's 1938 film, Olympia, was a meaningful part of an ongoing mental landscape of national shame.

So, there's a history that might lead one to expect a work of some enormity. Actually, at only two hours (no interval. Good) and with a cast of only seven, this production is much more a bite-sized, intelligent chamber piece than some intimidating monolith of regietheater-gone-mad.

But, the basic two questions here remain: what's in it and how's it done? (And also maybe: what does it look like? And: how does it feel?).

The text itself is a kind of rambling-but-viciously-sharp and funny, stream-of-consciousness; largely, but not exclusively, on the subject of sport. Sport and war, sport and classical mythology, sport in history; sport and popular culture, sport-related pop cultural tragedies, and so on. Jelinek has even written herself in as a character – or, rather, as an obliquely named speaker – Elfi-Elektra; hell-bent on either cultural or actual parricide.

(The play, it is noted in production dramaturg Karen Jürs-Munby's splendid introduction to the text, is one of Jelinek's most personal, incorporating mourning for the death of her Jewish father a couple of decades earlier.)

On paper, the text is kind of just a jumping off point. Indeed it opens with a page of stage directions which begin:
The author doesn't give many stage directions, she has learned her lesson by now. Do what you like...
So, in describing what happens here, we cannot divorce the text from Vanda Butkovic's production. As such, across this two-hour stage-traffic jam we find variously: dialogues, monologues, and a lot of chorus work. We see physical theatre, stylised acting, and stuff that looks a lot more like non-acting and performed naturalism all trying to carve a place for itself within a deliberately contradictory landscape.

Quite literally. French Scenographer Simon Donger's stage design consists of 140 kilograms of white teddy bear stuffing. Opening as a mountain (Olympus? Ho ho), it is gradually, or suddenly transformed into unfamiliar fields, dry-ice-like stage covering, banks of cloud, sand dunes and even golfing bunkers. The chorus emerge from the fluff and eventually, stripped down to nothing, fade back into the fluff.

Sitting outside the chorus, and entering the stage ahead of them Denise Heinrich Lane's Elfi Elektra. The first thing she does is take a “Jelinek” wig (Elfriede has a famously recognisable barnet) off the mic stand and put it on. But it's her reading of the text that is arresting. Seductive, languorous, fluent; this is a vocal performance that raises speaking to the level of song. It's the same sort of precision that the mezzo-soprano brings to Schubert's lieder. Elsewhere, within the chorus-work, however, there's evidence of a more knockabout aesthetic, perhaps faintly reminiscent at times of Forced Entertainment; although each chorus member also seems to bring a different, personal performance style to the proceedings. I suppose I should note that some of these were more to my taste than others, but in the midst of all the excavating of meaning from text and performance, it feels almost too nit-picky a point to make something of.

The sensation of watching the thing is in fact fairly strange, since the production has managed to pull off that mainland European, postdramatic, post-Brechtian aesthetic so well, despite many of the actors being British. As such, it feels strange to be watching a performance in English that so successfully does not try to seduce you as an audience member, or flatter you, or slavishly try to keep your attention, or trick you into becoming “emotionally involved” with the “characters”. That's not to say that it *isn't* funny and engaging, but somehow you focus more on the intellectual content than trying to “empathise” with specific characters or their *emotions*. All of which still feels strangely alien to describe as a success in British theatrical terms.

And yet, it is. This is an acutely intelligent rendering of an important bit of literature. Which makes the shortness of this tour seem all the more perplexing, well, culturally downright embarrassing.

Anyway, it opens in London shortly after the Olympics start – something we're apparently not allowed to say – and is a damn sight more intelligent. Vote with your feet, people.

Thursday 12 July 2012

A Doll's House - Young Vic

Carrie Cracknell's production of A Doll's House opens with a set. It's designed by Ian McNeil, who is most famous for the exploding doll's house set that he designed for Stephen Daldry's apparently unstoppable production of An Inspector Calls. McNeil doubtless kicked himself for having already shot his small-house-onstage bolt when he was asked to design this.

Here, McNeil has created a four-rooms-on-a-revolve set. It'd be disingenuous of me not to note that this immediately recalls the revolving rooms set used in Thomas Ostermeier's production of Hedda Gabler (and apparently also his Nora), except here the Scandi-Teutonic modern minimalism of the rooms is replaced by an interesting take on the period drama set. It doesn't look like detailed, historical accuracy, so much as one of those themed features you get in the magazines of Sunday newspapers – this one with the theme “Make your house look a bit C19th Norway”. Also interesting is the idea that the rooms on this set don't seem to exactly correspond to where they are meant to be in the “actual” house (although I could be wrong about this), but rather have windows between room which I think are intended to be looking out in another direction than into the next room.

These windows, do also, of course, make it much easier for us, the audience, to see through the house and for the production team to light it (although, by press night, they could have done with a bit of Windolene...). Also, re: the windows – and this only occurred to me this morning – while the tenement block staircase outside the flat is painstakingly accurate, I did wonder if the windows here weren't actually a bit Barrett-Homesy and small. Granted, I've done no research into C19th Norwegian tenement architecture, but I did wonder if this was actually a deliberate attempt to further the feeling of suburban familiarity initiated by the Sunday Times Style Section décor. Indeed, there are points, especially when the revolve moves, and Stuart Earl's dramatic-but-perhaps-a-bit-unnecessary score plays, where the whole looks a bit like a John Lewis advert going very badly awry.

I say this with admiration. This setting is fundamental to what's really great about this production; namely, the way that it seems to almost float between time periods. Essentially, none of the names or details have been changed. We're nominally in Norway in the 1870s, but at the same time the language used feels incredibly familiar; the setting, as I've said, looks recognisable; and the way that Nora and Torvald (Hattie Morahan and Dominic Rowan) relate to each other feels particularly contemporary. This is no stiff-necked Victorian relationship, but outwardly at least, quite a modern, touchy-feely, flirty, loving relationship. Ok, so Torvald is kinda patronising, and his habit of using fauna-based pet-names klangs a bit. In the first few pages alone, Nora is variously: “a little swallow”, “a chaffinch fluttering”, “my little hamster”, “like a little girl”, and “my little skylark”. It's almost like Ibsen is trying to tell us something.

And, in a funny way, this is sort of a problem that the success of the rest of Cracknell and Stephens's approach sets up for them.  Now, as far as I can tell/remember, Simon Stephens's New English Language Version doesn't deviate really from what Ibsen wrote. Not in terms of plot, or really in terms of what people say, or the order in which they say it. It's manifestly an incredibly playable translation, and while it actually looks quite normal on the page, the fluency with which the actors inhabit it prove it to be an incredibly thorough bit of work.

However, even this fluency causes the odd difficulty later on. That difficulty being: having made everything so clear, the situation so sympathetic, and all the characters really quite likeable – apart from Torvald's occasional Ibsen-prescribed moralistic moments – the final crunch moment, the moment when Torvald's mask slips, seems to hurtle in from a lot further away and impact a lot more uncomfortably than if the whole thing had seemed more remote from the start.

It's a difficult dilemma, because this really is a brilliant production. Even this “problem” I'm describing doesn't get in the way of enjoying the thing (if “enjoying” is ever the word for watching characters' lives crash down around their ears). But it does make you (me) wish that Cracknell/Stephens had done a bit more of a number on the script – maybe massaging some of Torvald's arguments – translating them, not only into English words, but into contemporary concepts. Basically, daring to make Torvald not seem unreasonable and ludicrous, which here, despite also having been quite likeable, he definitely does. (It surely can't hurt Torvald's case that in Rowan's performance he comes off not unlike Colin Firth's Mr Darcy.)

At the same time, you appreciate why they haven't. And actually, the remoteness of Torvald's arguments in this context is comforting, although that in itself could be seen to be problematic. For these reasons, you wind up with a production that does let you think (if you're bothering to ponder the socio-economic implications in the midst of all this human drama) about the extent to which the problems of these characters are primarily problems of their society much more than problems of their own making. Perhaps Ibsen's genius here is making it feel all the way through as if this is a story about personal agency and “wrong choices” when in fact it is an object lesson in how people get left with no choices at all. (Although, at every turn, this point is arguable.)

After all, in the first scene, if Torvald comes across as a bit patronising, then Nora doesn't present too well either; constantly harping on about money and coming across as a slightly ditsy spendthrift. Of course, we learn gradually that these are all elements of an elaborate façade that she's built up over the years. But then, while that's an act built up to service the repayment of the debt which she owes to Krogstad, undertaken to pay for an expensive trip to save her husband's life; at the same time, the way she tells it to Kristine (perhaps due in part to Monahan's performance here), she makes it sound like it was her “excitement at spending money” that made Torvald ill in the first place.

So, there's an interesting counter-reading available that suggests that Torvald is a man making the best of a ludicrously bad job; putting just as brave a face on his situation as Nora has on hers. She by pretending to be a childish creature and he by naming her after little creatures and doting on her.

I wonder how much of this reading is already present in this production, however. And how much of that is down to Morahan's extraordinary performance within it. It's chief virtue is its intensity. This is, after all, a portrayal of someone who, at the end, says she has been acting for the past nine years, and Morahan doesn't stint on demonstrating what a strain this is. Her Nora is as highly strung as a deposed dictator. Even before her situation begins to fly out of her control, she seems in a state of advanced panic. Perhaps there's something in Torvald's positing her as a hamster – a creature whose heart-rate is roughly nine time faster than that of the average human. Interestingly, you see it most when she is trying or pretending to be calm, Morahan's does a great line in wide-eyed staring, especially when she's looking out into the audience over the shoulder of someone embracing her.

At the same time, Morahan shouldn't get all the acting credit here. Rowan, although spending a lot of time boxed into giving Morahan's Nora something to play against, also turns in an excellent and very funny “drunk scene”, when the pair return from the party in an upstairs apartment. Similarly, Nick Fletcher's Nils Krogstad is a fine study in snide menace; an object lesson in how not to turn slightly reedy, nasal hectoring into a a caricature E.L. Wisty jobsworth. When Kristine Linde (Susannah Wise) finally returns the affection that she withdrew all those years previously, we are almost shown all the decency and humanity flooding back into the parched wasteland of his interior life.

And it certainly seems to be the acting that Cracknell appears to have focussed on. Apart from one beautifully luminous moment just before the interval, where Nora dances her Tarantella until it becomes a kind of spastic Pina Bausch homage, there is little to frighten the horses (and by horses, I mean dinosaurs) here. Instead of a big concept making suggestions to us, we're relatively free to mentally wonder round this Doll's House.

As a result, what I thought I noticed most was how well-turned a machine it is. Ibsen, like Chekhov, is incredibly cruel to his characters. And it's their predicaments that really draw us into the play. Ultimately, this isn't about “men and women”, but about desperation and panic. It doesn't feel like Ibsen is trying to sell us the hokey theory of hereditary morality that Torvald espouses (although he might have believed them himself (cf. The ideological patterns debunked in Not in Our Genes) ) any more than Nora's glancingly astute comment that “Thousands and thousands and thousands of woman have [sacrificed their honour for the person they love]” is the *point* of the play.

Watching this play, from 1870, in this clean, unshowily modern-looking, modern-sounding production, I did wonder whether you really do get a “proper” sense of the play from this production; or whether it's a lot more of a *take* on the play than I'd been giving it credit for.

What I find most strange about us all staging Ibsen now, over a decade into the 21st century, however, is this: Ibsen's social conscience and grasp of human predicaments were so ahead of his time that they feel contemporary now. However, the society and situations to which he applied them feel so remote that it feels like what we are watching now, when we watch Ibsen, is almost a kind of contemporary humanist, science fiction warning against the troubles of a future society.

Cracknell's production is great because it makes us think of the bad old day of the Victorians, and properly institutionalised laws that discriminated against women (God knows there are still problems now, but we should also recognise the progress that has been made since then). It shows us quite a plausible, contemporary-seeming couple, and then at the end it explodes with this tirade from the past into our present. It's essentially a production about the re-election of the Conservative Party – horrible ideas from the past crashing back into progressive, contemporary life.

It is a truism that science fiction is always really about the present. It strikes me that “contemporary drama” is almost always actually about the past. I wonder, then, if it is in “classic texts” that we catch glimpses of the future.