We were attracted to the latest theatrical production at the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith (West London) because it was a play set in Calcuttta (Kolkata) in the late 1870s. It was not any old play set in Victorian Bengal, but a new adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s the Dolls House (first performed 1879), which was originally set in a Norwegian town in the 19th century.
What we saw at the Lyric was a new version of Ibsen’s play created by the playwright Tanika Gupta. In Ibsen’s play the main protagonists are Nora Helmer, her husband Torwald Helmer, Dr Rank, Nora’s school friend Kristine Linde, and one of the employees in Torwald’s bank, a desperate widowed father, Nils Krogstad. In Gupta’s play Torwald becomes Tom Helmer, an Englishman, who has married Niru, a Bengali beauty, and has become a senior official in the British administration of India. Dr Rank remains Dr Rank, but is also an Englishman. Kristine becomes Krishna Lahiri, an impoverished widow and schoolfriend of Niru. Nils Krogstad is transformed into Mr Kaushik Das, a widowed Bengali father of four children and a lowly employee in Tom’s office.
In its new guise, Gupta’s Dolls House sticks to the spirit and main ideas in Ibsen’s plot but causes it to be played out in the steamy tropical climate of Calcutta. Gupta explores the relationship between the representative of British imperialism and his very sweet Indian wife. The arrival of Krishna and then Mr Das on the scene soon unsettles the happy home life that the Helmers had been enjoying. Without giving the story away, Mr Das, whom Tom does not like, holds a secret that could bring about Tom’s downfall if revealed. Tom is blisfully ignorant of the threat that Das poses, but the opposite is the case for Niru, whose great anxiety Das stimulates.
Although I had some reservations about the new version of the play, I enjoyed it and the often excellent performances of the actors. What fascinated me was how successfully Ibsen’s play had been ‘relocated’ from the gloom of Norway to the colourfulness of Bengal without losing the feeling that it was a play inspired by Ibsen. By translating the play from one cultural milieu to another, Gupta has preserved and enhanced Ibsen’s messages about the role of women and social class. She has added another fascinating ingredient: the portrayal of British racism towards Indians in pre-independence India. I feel that many of the Anglo-Saxon members of the audience might have been blissfully unaware of their ancestors’ unpalatable attitude to Indians they ruled. They would have left the theatre better informed about this blot on Britain’s history.
The play is on at the Lyric until 5th October 2019.
Image adapted from lovetheatre.com