“I did it out of love, didn’t I?”
Part of the thrill of watching new actors explode onto the scene is the knowledge that in at least a few of the cases, we are watching the Judi Denches, Maggie Smiths and Michael Gambons of our time at the beginnings of their careers. If I were a betting man, I’d wager that Cush Jumbo will be someone we are watching for decades to come and it has been a particular pleasure to watch her work at Manchester’s Royal Exchange progress over the last few years. Her creative relationship with director Greg Hersov has seen successful takes on Pygmalion and As You Like It and reunited once again, they now have a go at A Doll’s House.
Bryony Lavery has slightly retooled Henrik Ibsen’s classic play, sprinkling it lightly with modern touches which perfectly suit Jumbo’s striking presence as Nora, a woman who unblinkingly does what she can to protect her husband and family until finally, she realises that it is herself that she needs to look after the most. It remains a compellingly foresighted piece of writing – 130 years old now – challenging social conventions about marriage, motherhood and the role that money has to play in all of this.
Hersov’s production is unfussy and uncomplicated (there’s something a little ironic about seeing it done in the round after the spinning house of the Young Vic’s recent interpretation) resulting in the kind of theatre that is entirely focused on the acting and it is largely excellent. As the people picking through the pieces of their own broken lives, Jack Tarlton’s desperate blackmailer Krogstad, Kelly Hotten’s Mrs Linde who can’t quite bring herself to provide enough moral support and Jamie De Courcey’s sweet but almost hapless Dr Rank all seem doomed to muddle through life.
It is only Jumbo’s Nora who manages to break through the torpor of the daily grind, well evinced by David Sturzaker’s sanctimonious husband who can scarcely believe what is happening with the person he married. She’s a performer of huge integrity, making us feel every tiny bit of emotion – the pride, the anguish, the desperation, the implacable calm that comes with the final realisation of what she must do. She drives the production along but as a key component of the whole rather than with the showiness of a starring role – the intensity of the drama truly an ensemble achievement.