A Doll's House review – Ibsen's classic shrewdly reimagined in colonial India

Tanika Gupta has transposed Ibsen’s seminal play to 1879 Calcutta and the result is multilayered, massively intelligent and moving. In Gupta’s version, colonial politics are inescapably intertwined with an inflexible patriarchy and, although I have the odd caveat, Rachel O’Riordan’s production gets the Lyric’s new regime off to a rousing start.

Following Ibsen’s structure, Gupta turns Tom Helmer into a chief of tax collection who exoticises his wife, Niru, as his “little Indian princess”. This instantly highlights the isolation of Niru, a sari-wearing Christian convert regarded with equal suspicion by the colonial wives and her fellow Indians. It also allows Gupta to fascinatingly redefine the other characters. Niru’s closest friend, the terminally ill Dr Rank, becomes a fiercely pro-Indian expat who argues that it’s the English that need civilizing.

An irredeemable creep … Elliot Cowan as Tom and Colin Tierney as Dr Rank. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Ibsen’s blackmailing Krogstad, whose power resides in his knowledge that the heroine has forged her father’s signature, is also transformed into the more complex figure of the lowly clerk, Kaushik Das. When he declares that he will rise through the ranks so that “it’ll be me, an Indian, calling the shots,” you hear the stored up resentment of an oppressed people.

Everything in Ibsen has been shrewdly reimagined: Niru shows her command over Rank by getting him to tie dancing-bells round her ankles. Anjana Vasan gives a career-defining performance as Niru. She captures perfectly the gradations in Niru’s character as she moves from the assumed role of skittish, smiling child bride to the suicidal frenzy of a dance that has her beating the walls in despair to the poised, climactic declaration of independence. It’s a measure of Vasan’s success that she seems to age 20 years in the course of the performance. Elliot Cowan is equally assured as Tom and, if I have any criticism of Gupta’s text, it is that it makes his character seem an irredeemable creep as, at the end, he moves from racist abuse of Niru to patronising ingratiation. I miss the note of hope Ibsen offers of Tom’s possible moral reawakening. But there is superb support from Colin Tierney as an anti-colonial Rank, Assad Zaman as the understandably vengeful Das and Tripti Tripuraneni as a self-sacrificing Indian widow.

Deftly staged around Lily Arnold’s tiered courtyard, this is a fine production that makes us see a familiar classic through fresh eyes.

At Lyric Hammersmith, London, until 5 October.

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