“You are a wife and a mother before anything else.”
There are occasions when I wonder if the madness will ever stop. In my determination to be as open-minded as theatre as I can, I frequently put myself through things that I know I don’t like in the hope that something new might appear to me. This is particularly true of Ibsen, the Norwegian playwright acclaimed as one of the greatest playwrights ever but through whose work I have suffered a lot as it just hasn’t connected with me. Some productions have come a little way but by and large, I just don’t like Ibsen. Yet when the Young Vic announced a new production of A Doll’s House, directed by former AD of the Gate Carrie Cracknell and newly adapted by Simon Stephens, my reflex booking finger got to work to revisit this shocking-at-the-time tale of the pursuit of self-realisation with its forward-thinking deconstruction of 19th century marriage as Nora and Torvald Helmer are rocked by a series of events that rips down their perceived notions of each other. This was a preview that I saw, so be sure to take everything I say with a pinch of salt.
And boy am I glad that I did as from the second row, I found it be utterly, hypnotically compelling. I’ve previously tended to find Ibsen’s characters extremely remote and hard to access but from the outset here, there’s a persuasive sense of a realistic dynamic in the marital relationship of the Helmers. Returning from her Christmas shopping trip, Nora’s image remains beautifully composed (Gabrielle Dalton’s costumes are simply gorgeous) and her position as the ultimate trophy wife soon apparent as her husband emerges from his study. What Dominic Rowan does so very brilliantly is to convey all the brutal complexity of Torvald, there’s a seductive quality, a sexually possessive masculinity that one can imagine any of us, never mind Nora, falling for, even as he seeks to control her. But as the play progresses, Rowan increasingly darkens in tone, and manner, as his attentions become creepier, more stifling as his true attitudes are laid bare. All the while though he maintains that veneer of magnetic affability that he can switch on, even in his drunken mocking of his wife’s friend Kristine, he is disarming and charming.
Against this barrage of testosterone, Hattie Morahan’s Nora is initially completely in thrall. Fluttering around like the countless birds to which she is compared, she fusses and fixes, ever playing the dutiful friend and wife and prone to burying her face in her husband’s chest as the consequences of her previous actions threatens to paralyse her. But there’s also an intensity that burns inside of her, that Morahan brings so powerfully first to her face as the devious Krogstad makes his pernicious demands of her, and then to her whole body as she practices her tarantella dancing with such fierceness it is as a seizure has taken over her entire person, so desperate is she to erase the horror that has become her life. And then the final scene of epic self-realisation, there are barely words to describe the incandescence with which she burns, streams of understanding uncoiling from her and solidifying into determined action, it is devastating and exculpatory and wrenching and extraordinary and most importantly, it resonates with profound truth.
Ian MacNeil’s design mounts the Helmers’ apartment onto a revolve, its four rooms and interconnected corridors spinning round in a number of tableaux which cover the scene changes. They appear frequently and unquestionably add to the running time which might make them less than popular but I thought they were excellent, they bring a real sense of the domestic bustle that forms the backdrop to the play and accompanied by Stuart Earl’s plangent music, it provides some piercing moments like Nora gazing through the living room window at her children with a baleful ambivalence. Those children feature quite a bit, which really adds depth to the portrayal of Nora’s life and what she stands to lose (though I didn’t find out which pair of boys was on for this performance) and in the only slightly indulgent, if ineffably cute moment of the production for me, a baby is actually used to briefly play the youngest child. But elsewhere in the supporting performances – Steve Toussaint’s ailing doctor, Susannah Wise’s desperate widow, Nick Fletcher’s weaselly Krogstad – there’s such clarity and emotional honesty that the pace of the play and its strong currents of feeling never falter.
Though I did see Zinnie Harris’ version for the Donmar back in 2009, I can’t pretend to know enough detail of the play, or have enough of a sense of Stephens as a writer, to be able to comment on his version here, I will leave that to more seasoned commentators. What I can say though is that between them, Stephens and Cracknell have cracked the shell of emotional reticence that often marks Ibsen’s plays and revealed its beating heart, the powerful emotion that lies at the heart of such extreme emotion. It is the first time anyone has ever managed this for me with Ibsen and so with my hand on my heart, I can say this was a genuinely revelatory production.