A DOLL’S HOUSE
Duke of York’s Theatre, London WC2
Classic plays such as Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 ground-breaker remain great because they reveal as much about our lives as they did about the audiences who first saw them.
Carrie Cracknell’s beautifully staged production — first seen at the Young Vic and based on a new English translation by playwright Simon Stephens — allows us to see the stultifying Helmer household in glorious detail. Between scenes and before the action-proper starts, the apartment spins like a carousel on its axis so that we get to observe not only the cosy comfort in which Hattie Morahan’s Nora lives, but also the important meetings held by her banker husband Torvald that we only hear about in other productions.
It is all superbly choreographed with the cast moving through the revolving interior with pin-point timing, so that as each room passes the audience, we see that it is hosting a silent tableaux depicting the household’s goings-on.
So by the time things get going, we not only have a strong sense of domestic rhythm, but crucially the balance — or imbalance — of power in the Helmer marriage is already established. And, of course, not only in the Helmer marriage, but in most of the marriages in the play’s first audience in Copenhagen, which is why it caused such a stir there — as it did in Germany where the actor who played Nora demanded a less radical ending.
These days, the sight of a husband’s dominance being shattered by a wife’s rebellion is no shocker. But in Torvald’s chauvinistic reassurances and manfully enforced rules, there is still enough here to make some of today’s couples shift uncomfortably. More politically, there are plenty of closed societies where a play in which a wife turns the tables on her husband would be as politically charged as one that depicted the assassination of a head of state. So A Doll’s House is as relevant this century as it was during all of last.
But you need a Nora who transmits a suppressed intelligence.
Morahan’s Nora is highly strung. She emits fits of giggles whenever she summons the courage to break one of Torvald’s rules. For a while the result is intriguing. This Nora so loves the trappings of the kept wife, it’s an intriguing wait to see how she makes the transition to feminism. But it doesn’t pay off.
In the scene where Nora sees that life with Torvald will be stultifying, it’s hard to see where she draws that strength from. Nor did I get on much with Morahan’s way of transmitting Nora from wife to feminist. What is needed is a heroine from whom you can see the movement’s mettle emerge. What we get is something emotional and unstable, a Nora who is the kind of woman that chauvinistic men — including Dominic Rowan’s supremely unimaginative Torvald — think of as a typical female.