Theatre review: Strong script, patchy acting in Dear Nora

Taking on Henrik Ibsen, one of the 19th century's most notable playwrights, is always a challenge. The power of his plays lie in their unflinching concise realism and any adaptation has to preserve that fidelity.

Our Company's Dear Nora has done a gentle competent adaptation of A Doll's House. Its version, on till Sunday at the Drama Centre, updates the story well. Unfortunately, it is stifled by lacklustre performances.

In Ibsen's original 1879 play, Nora Helmer is a mother-of-three, living the ideal life in a new house with her newly-promoted husband, Torvald.

Here, Nora Huang is a mother-to-be, taking pottery lessons and supposedly attending yoga classes after having just moved into a new flat with her financier husband, Thomas.

In both cases, their outwardly perfect lives crumble as Nora (Ethel Yap) faces financial and emotional pressure from debt collectors, while walled in by her husband's complacency and refusal to see the cracks in their relationship. The strain from all sides eventually results in Nora leaving the gilded cage of marriage.

The strength of Our Company's adaptation is in finding the parallels between Ibsen's work and our society. Scriptwriter Michelle Tan squeezes an unwilling Nora into the mould of the stereotypical tai-tai trophy wife, living off her husband's money and whose only job is to preen for parties.

Meanwhile, Thomas (K.S. Yeo) is completely blind to the pressure that he is putting on Nora to conform to that model. When Nora talks of taking classes to improve herself, he gently talks her out of the idea, telling her ironically that "if you were a tai tai, I'd have no objection to you learning new skills".

Tan's script also powerfully seizes on the significance of Nora's forgery. In both the original and the adaptation, Nora fakes her dying father's signature to guarantee a loan for an overseas stint, to get Thomas back on his feet after a bout of illness.

In Ibsen's version, Torvald's unhappiness over the act stems from Nora's deceit and crime. Here, her illegal act also triggers off Thomas' insecurities about being a provider, his helplessness over his depression and his confidence in his career.

At points, Tan's exploration of Ibsen's characters meanders. Interspersed among the scenes are letters that Thomas reads out loud to Nora after her departure, which are full of promises and pleas for her to return. Instead of humanising Thomas, these letters serve only to caricature him; instead of introspection and self-discovery, they reveal only self-pity.

Despite a strong script, the show is let down by patchy acting. Yap as Nora props up the rest of the cast, which includes Ellison Tan as Christine Lim (Christine Linde in the original) and Marlon Dance-Hooi as Niles Koh (Krogstad in the original). They falter in the quieter moments, with flat deliveries and limp bearings, a fact made more apparent against an unforgiving bare set.

The phrasing of speech in the script is also clunky at times. English translations of Ibsen's Norwegian original are taut and barely embellished, but here, the characters sometimes break into an odd mix of Singaporean colloquialisms and overwrought phrases. Lines such as "I'd chase you down the street like a Channel 8 drama" did not mesh well with "You speak of his name like you know him too, baby".

The adaptation also leaves Ibsen's Nora's three children out of the picture, although she is pregnant in Tan's reimagining - an understandable choice, given the additional logistics entailed.

But by stripping Nora of her status as a mother, her final decision to leave loses some of its impact. Instead of a devoted family woman sacrificing all to become her own person, Nora's departure feels more like a teenage tantrum.

Still, Dear Nora was a powerful second showing from a young theatre company, one that should be applauded for its ambition.

Book It

DEAR NORA

Where: Drama Centre Black Box

When: Thursday to Sunday, 8pm; additional shows on Saturday and Sunday at 3pm

Admission: $30 from TicketMash (go to www.ticketmash.sg/dearnora)