Strong acting fails to bring revised Ibsen classic to life

<!--StartFragment--><strong> Theatre<br /></strong>A DOLL&rsquo;S HOUSE<br /><strong>Donmar Warehouse<br /></strong><br />Ibsen&rsquo;s story of a woman who walks away from her empty marriage was too much for upright Victorian audiences at its first London staging in 1889. With such compelling source-material, it&rsquo;s a shame Zinnie Harris&rsquo;s reworked version &ndash; which relocates things from 1880s Norway to London in 1909 &ndash; is curiously bloodless, despite some fortuitous topicality.<br /><br />Gillian Anderson stars as well-to-do housewife Nora, in Harris&rsquo;s version married to a rising politician rather than a bank manager, Thomas Vaughan (Toby Stephens). His promotion to the Cabinet has come at the expense of a fellow politician beset by fraud allegations, Christopher Ecclestone&rsquo;s Neil Kelman. But things unravel for Nora when an old debt she secretly owes to Kelman becomes his bargaining tool to win back his job.<br /><br />When Thomas says &ldquo;As politicians, our staple is trust,&rdquo; the audience roars with laughter. Timely the show&rsquo;s political element may be, but it isn&rsquo;t a lot more than that. Harris somehow never really justifies her tinkering with Ibsen&rsquo;s play, with plot inconsistencies and cumbersome dialogue hardly helping.<br /><br />The cast is impressive, though, with Stephens in particular delivering a muscular performance as the blinkered, egotistical Thomas. Anderson, on stage for all but one scene, is willowy and vulnerable, and handles Nora&rsquo;s final transition deftly. Ecclestone is full of clumsy attitude, while Tara Fitzgerald and Anton Lesser, as Christine and Dr Rank, perform admirably in awkwardly written roles.<br />Timothy Barber<br /><br />THE OBSERVER<br /><strong>Cottesloe, National Theatre<br /></strong><br />Just over a year on from Zimbabwe&rsquo;s strife-filled elections, this taut and intelligent play about the ethics of foreign diplomacy in politically unstable Africa is certainly not lacking in punch. Set during a similarly unbalanced attempt at democratic process in an unnamed West African former colony, The Observer is a cautionary tale centred around the deputy chief of an international electoral observation team, Fiona Russell (Anna Chancellor).<br /><br />A seasoned observer, Fiona is an efficient, competent official well-versed in the protocols of impartial monitoring. But by the end of the first act, she begins to crack under the weight of her conscience. When the first results suggest the country&rsquo;s despot, who is unpopular both at home and abroad, may lose, she resolves to step in and &ldquo;see this little country take a huge step forward&rdquo; &ndash; a turn of phrase that hints perfectly at the unavoidable condescension of her situation.<br /><br />But Anna&rsquo;s moral ambiguity is much more benign than the sinister Mr Saunders (James Fleet), a pantomime baddie of a Foreign Office civil servant who intercepts her emails and bugs her phone. His monologues between scenes provide a perfect balance of calm menace against Chancellor&rsquo;s highly-strung energy, as she goes through a shift from methodical administrator to passionate campaigner.<br /><br />The Observer is a return for the National&rsquo;s former artistic director Richard Eyre and former writer-in-residence Matt Charman. The play won Charman the Catherine Johnson award for Best Play last year, and with good reason.<br />Catrin Rogers