Marta Dusseldorp on her love of rebellious theatre-makers, and her passion for the transience of live performance.
When A Doll’s House, Part 2 came across Marta Dusseldorp’s radar she thought, ‘How ostentatious … how naughty for someone to write this.’ Dusseldorp’s reaction was in the same vein as many others; built on a scepticism and instinctive criticism of a playwright, in this case Lucas Hnath, who was willing to interfere with a classic. ‘I thought … who do these people think they are? … Americans!’
However, when Laurie Metcalf appeared as Nora in the Broadway production, the play collected multiple nominations and several awards, and Dusseldorp’s scepticism turned to awe.
She sat down to read the script and acknowledged her inaccurate assumptions. Not only was Hnath’s narrative funny, but it took Ibsen’s fiercely political work from 1879 and made it pertinent to our contemporary world. ‘It’s important to note that it’s not a feminist play,’ Dusseldorp says, ‘and it’s not an anti-feminist play.
It is a debate. But it doesn’t feel like a debate because of the emotional stakes.’ Dusseldorp was thrilled when MTC approached her for the role – the first company globally to gain the rights to Hnath’s coveted script since its Broadway premiere in April last year. The part also meant she could work with her long-time friend and MTC Associate Director, Sarah Goodes, for the very first time.
It is rare that the reinvention of a definitive character like Nora Helmer would crop up again and that the stars should align in this way, she says. The original script had been a favourite of hers since drama school at Melbourne’s Victorian College of the Arts. ‘I’d always been fascinated with Ibsen. If you want to be [theatre] literate, you have to have read all of his works … and Chekov and Strindberg. He played a big part in my learning.’
The intricacy of Ibsen’s detail and plot-weave is like Arthur Miller’s she claims; as good as any TV drama that you would binge watch today; chapter-by-chapter, act-by-act. Dusseldorp reflects on the parallels between Ibsen and Hnath and their relative theatrical rebellion for their era. Ibsen came from a traditional Norwegian merchant family and was originally interested in writing plays that people were expecting to see. ‘Then finally he went, “F**k it, I’m going to write a play as if my mother does walk out.” Because of course, they lived a very traditional life,’ she says.
‘What motivated him to do that 150 years ago, we’ll never know. But it’s in the same way Lucas Hnath – who is only 37 years old – 138 years later, decides he’s also going to create an irresponsible act, which is the imposition of a classic.
‘He understands that Nora matters to us, and he rewards us when we turn up by allowing it to be funny, as well as beautifully emotional, with real complexity.’
A Doll’s House, Part 2, does play out like a meta-fiction according to Dusseldorp. ‘A play about a play,’ she says. It’s been described as a sequel and a coda, however it’s the righteousness of all four characters in Hnath’s script that makes the story so compelling and relatable. ‘Everyone is right in it. There are four great roles and everyone is arguing for himself or herself. It’s very “of our time”.’
Hnath’s play picks up 15 years after Nora slams the door on her family in Ibsen’s original work. For Dusseldorp, there is great pain and great humility between the lines of Hnath’s humour. ‘I think the reason Nora is even more interesting now, is because she is free in the way that we relate to as women. But she’s still bound by her family. And that is her Achilles’ heel. That’s anyone’s Achilles’ heel.’
‘Of course we all want to see the abandoned child confront her abandoner,’ Dusseldorp exclaims. ‘That is something that I, as a mother, wrestle with – condemning Nora for that moment. So how does she come to a place of redemption, or does she?’
A Doll’s House, Part 2 will mark Dusseldorp’s return to Melbourne Theatre Company, since her 1997 role in Three Sisters. It was former MTC Artistic Director Roger Hodgman who took her under his wing and convinced her a career in performing arts was not only possible, but also probable.
‘Immediately I felt that I could be an actor in this industry. That was the feeling Melbourne Theatre Company gave me. That community gave me the confidence to believe that I had chosen the right path.’
The rehearsal room remains the most sacred and special place for Dusseldorp in the theatre making process, and is one of the major reasons she carves out chunks of her year for the stage. ‘It’s the place where you learn how deep you can go, and how hard you have to look at something. It’s also the place where you negotiate and imprint the foundation of the production. When you perform night after night, eight shows a week, it is really important that you know you’ve got strong guidelines. And then from that, freedom sparks.’
A Doll’s House, Part 2 plays at Southbank Theatre from 11 August to 15 September.