Janet McTeer is thrilled to be on Broadway, and Broadway is thrilled to have her. Reviewing her astonishing portrayal of Nora, the childlike housewife who finally asserts her feminine independence in Ibsen's A Doll's House, Ben Brantley of The New York Times called her a "revelation" and said she made it seem as if the century-old role "was only just written, and written specifically for her." Sellout audiences at the Belasco Theatre agree.
"It's all so amazing," the tall, blonde, 35-year-old actress says. "You can't really take it all in. But I'm very happy. I'm enjoying every second. I can't quite remember the last time I was in such a good mood."
McTeer has every right to feel that way. Earlier this year, she won the Olivier Award in London, besting three of Britain's finest actresses: Vanessa Redgrave, Dame Diana Rigg and Eileen Atkins. Critics have said that McTeer and her superb supporting cast‹including Owen Teale as her husband, Torvald, and their imaginative director, Anthony Page‹have taken an 1879 classic and made it a deeply relevant and moving contemporary drama.
Sitting in a restaurant near the theatre, McTeer will relate how it all came to pass‹how a nearly six-foot-one actress, too tall in almost anyone's mind to play the doll-like housewife, came to give what is perhaps the quintessential performance in the role.
"I had seen the play a few times, and I had a lot of ideas about it," she recalls. "And then in 1995 I was asked to do it on BBC radio. I said yes, because I also thought I was too tall, that I wasn't right for it on the stage. But after doing it on the radio, I decided that Nora may be a little person on the inside‹but she isn't a little
person on the outside." She took her ideas to Thelma Holt, a London producer and a good friend. Holt liked what she heard and produced the play in London (Bill Kenwright is the lead producer on Broadway).
Nora Helmer, McTeer says, "has no self esteem. She has no idea who she is or how to be herself. She was brought up to be a good wife and a good mother, and she thought she was happy, playing out this game of who she should be." Then, suddenly, everything goes wrong in her life, and "she realizes she's a much bigger, much better person."
At the start of the play, McTeer's Nora is a tense personification of perpetual motion, a nervous mixture of manic laughter and anxious chatter, a woman trying to hide her true feelings from herself and everyone else. Such mammoth self-doubt can be very annoying, McTeer says, but that's the point. "I quite like the idea that people go out at intermission thinking, 'She's really quite irritating, isn't she?' She is irritating. She has all those things that would irritate me in a woman."
In the final act, however, Nora is transformed from a doll wife to an assertive, newly enfranchised woman who walks out of her marriage, slamming the door of diminishment behind her. Her actions have long been considered the first display of feminism onstage. But since the play's premiere almost 120 years ago, some critics have found the change too sudden. McTeer's interpretation provides an answer. "My take is that she doesn't turn into a great feminist overnight," the actress says. "What happens is that she realizes she doesn't know who she is, but she is going to have a good go at trying to find out."
Torvald, her husband, has often been portrayed as older, distant, pompous and passionless. Audiences see no love in the relationship and often feel no emotional connection. Owen Teale, however, provides a younger, sexier Torvald who, whatever his limitations, clearly loves Nora‹and Nora loves him back. There is a physical attraction, a passion between the two that draws audiences in and makes them feel the pain of the ultimate split.
"Whenever I saw the play, Torvald was always cast as a much older man," McTeer says. "I hated that. I thought it was completely wrong. I thought the play was much bigger, much better than that. It's not a feminist play. It's a humanist play from which you can draw feminist conclusions. Couples are always symbiotic ‹or at least they once were. It is much more interesting to see the marriage appear to work at the beginning, although it has no depth. Both Torvald and Nora play games. They play out roles. That is so true in so many relationships. When children arrive, or when some crisis occurs, couples don't have the resources to deal with it because they've been so busy getting on with their lives. They haven't learned how to sit down and discuss things. I thought that was such a modern notion, and it's all there in the play."
McTeer grew up in Yorkshire, in north England, her father a railway employee and her mother a worker in a nursing home. And she says her take on Nora relates to her childhood.
"We are a very close family, and I love them very much," she says, "but I'm definitely the odd one out. I live a completely different kind of life style. I always was different. I felt like a fish out of water; I really never knew who I was. That's what I drew on for Nora: the idea of somebody brought up in an environment in which you do not fit."
She had no idea she would wind up in the theatre. "But then I got a job selling coffee at the York Theatre, and when I met theatre people, something clicked. I felt comfortable with them; I felt like myself. I decided to go to drama school based just on that feeling. I had never done any acting."
McTeer attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and soon found that the theatre was her natural environment. In recent years she has starred in London in Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing and at the National Theatre with Antony Sher in Chekhov's Uncle Vanya. American audiences know her best as Vita Sackville-West in "Portrait of a Marriage" on PBS.
For now, McTeer says, her focus is still on Nora. But after the run is over, she is hoping for more roles in the States. And there is one part she would very much like to try. "I'd love to play Hamlet," she says. "In a way Nora's a female Hamlet. But I don't think I ever will."
She pauses. "But you never know. Maybe one day." After all, when it comes to talent, the door never slams.