A Doll’s House is one of the earliest examples of feminist theater. First performed in 1879, the show appeared to rave reviews earlier this year, at Boston’s Huntington Theater. The director, Melia Bensussen, took time to speak with Huffington Post about her the production.
Michael: How does your audience relate to the themes of The Doll’s House? The play is not contemporary but the issues are.
Melia: Well, it’s exactly what you’re saying. What I have been hearing is a lot of surprise at how contemporary the play feels and how relevant the questions at hand are. I’m very gratified by the fact that there have been standing ovations, and even applause at a couple of Nora’s lines at the end of the play.
Michael: What’s the main conflict that Ibsen focuses on?
Melia: The idea, which is so near and dear to me with this play, is that it asks you what do you think is right to do in your life, in your marriage. How far is too far to compromise in any relationship?
Michael: Today’s politics are so striking and unexpected. How does that relate to the way the audience experiences the play?
Melia: I think it’s feeling much more raw than it would have felt had the election gone a different way. I think there’s more of a nakedness in response, not only to some of the embedded misogyny in a couple of the characters, but also just to the notion of society decreeing something’s right and something’s wrong.
I think Ibsen is saying, don’t judge anybody harshly by their acts. You don’t know the circumstances for what society has forced someone to do. I think we hear that now in a very different light.
Michael: Tell me about the mixed race cast.
Melia: It’s a group of outstanding actors. They’re young. I wanted the play to feel like it was a story of young people in their late twenties, early thirties. This is different from how Ibsen is often done which is much more established people. Ibsen is writing about the aspirations of class, the desire to fit in. I wanted the cast to reflect what our society feels like.
Michael: How do you avoid the sense of reverence to a classic piece of theater and instead make it fresh?
Melia: I get a little crazy, a little obsessive. I read everything that Ibsen wrote about this play, I’ve read every version of this play. I’ve seen every version. I feel like I’m in dialogue in my own fanatical way with the writer. I’m asking Ibsen, “What would you do in Boston at this moment with this cast? What’s the essence of what the play is trying to say?” I think that’s the key, how do you get to the essence? Not to the baggage the play brings, but the essence of what the play can do.
Michael: You had to delve into the play’s history and then see it with contemporary eyes.
Melia: Right, that’s exactly right. With the costumes, it was very important to me to not clothe the characters in the clothes of 1878 because that’s very Victorian. It requires a kind of stiffness in those clothes. I wanted these characters to feel more like us, to move more like us, to feel more open sexually.
I think Ibsen’s language is much sexier than we often credit him for. You read it and you realize they’re making a lot of jokes about enjoying each other physically. And yet, because we always see them in these 1870’s buttoned up clothing, we don’t imagine that side of their life. So the question is, how do I honor the text and its weight that way while allowing this audience to feel more connections to what their physical lives may be?
Michael: Why did you and Huntington choose to do A Doll’s House?
Melia: About a year ago we were talking about a variety of plays. It just happened that it was a really lovely coincidence. I think they had not done Ibsen since Kate Burton’s Hedda Gabler, which was a while ago. They had been tossing about the idea of doing Ibsen and someone there had read Bryony Lavery’s wonderful adaptation and so they brought it up. Chris Weigel, the producer there, just mentioned it to me and said, “What would you think?” and I jumped on it. I was just beyond thrilled that he would suggest it. I have had a passion for Ibsen and then I read Bryony’s adaptation and was just so excited.
Michael: Are you pleased with the production? I assume so.
Melia: I am. This is always a hard time for me after it opens, to be honest, because I miss actors. The cast becomes its own creature. The actors and the audience get to have a special relationship. As a director, I’m a little left out of the party, if you know what I mean. This is the time when I get a little post partum sadness about it. I love this group. I love this cast. I love the design. I’m very, very proud of everybody’s work and I’m very grateful to a theater like the Huntington to invest so much in a relatively daring approach.