Booked during the soggy, grey late June days that seemed doomed to be our summer, an Ibsen play on a glorious July evening suddenly seemed all wrong.
But the Young Vic’s recent production of the Norwegian playwright’s A Doll’s House was so absorbing that it was easy to forget the enticing sunshine outside as I became wrapped up in the domestic drama that heated up on stage. Ibsen, like so many of those famous foreign names, seems, to the uninitiated, so impenetrable, as dark and bleak as a Norwegian winter. But, like so many of those heavyweight names, his writing has endured because it’s the opposite of those preconceptions – it’s so human and accessible. In reality Ibsen’s dialogue, particularly in the hands of Simon Stephens’ sharp translating pen, is quick, witty and enthralling with an unexpected lightness.
A Doll’s House centres around a middle class family in the 19th century as they get ready for Christmas, with Nora Helmer at its emotional centre. Ibsen is of course casting his net far wider than the Helmer’s home, he’s using this small domestic scene as a device to reveal the plight of women at the tail end of the 1800s. Not that Nora could be described as an every woman – she’s wealthy and beautiful with the self of entitlement that those two pieces of luck bring you. But this gives even greater emotional pull to her moment of clarity.
Nora is the quintessential pretty girl who’s used her looks as currency to buy a life she thought she wanted. Closeted and controlled since birth, first by her late father before and then by the handsome, but superficial and controlling, Torvald – a man so self-obsessed that when he hears his good friend Dr Rank is dying his first words are “I knew I wouldn’t have him for long.” – she suddenly metaphorically wakes up and finds herself trapped in a world she longs to escape. Ibsen peppering Torvald’s dialogue with bird nicknames (‘skylark’ ‘swallow’) for Nora are, perhaps, rather unnecessarily heavily-loaded ironies.
Ian MacNeil’s fantastic set was so attention grabbing that it took on a life of its own. The revolving rooms not only brought the ‘doll’s house’ to life, but also added a filmic quality to the play, its tracking-shot style keeping the momentum going and in turn keeping Nora ‘trapped’ inside the house and the story.
The actors were all fantastic, but special plaudits must go to Hattie Morahan who captures Nora’s fragility, intelligence, manipulative selfish-ness – her humanness. Sometimes you wanted to slap her round the face (she’s a terrible friend to Susannah Wise’s Christine Linde) but Morahan also makes you like her to the extent that your heart breaks along with Nora’s as she makes her agonising decision (Stephens’ left out Ibsen’s final, ambiguous line – he clearly doesn’t believe they’ll be a reconciliation). The final scene is wrenching, such is the pain of Morahan and Dominic Rowan’s Torvald, that it’s almost unwatchable. Nora’s heartbreak is so raw that is was no wonder Morahan looked drained as she came out to take her bow for the curtain call. That’s not to say it was all bleak. I almost forgave Torvald all his self-obsession and shallowness after Rowan’s brilliantly funny drunk scene following their neighbour’s party. This was no one-dimensional brute, just as this wasn’t a one-dimensional production of Ibsen’s multi-layered masterpiece.
by Suzanne Elliott