It is little surprise that 120 years after he wrote it, Henrik Ibsen still compels us to come in to his A Doll’s House and live the nightmare of Nora in particular, but also her husband Torvald and their friends. Only her two children, Jon and Ivar, safely sleeping by the start of the second half, do not awaken during the production to the new reality.
Her downfall was to confuse compassion with the law. How can it be wrong to lie about a forged signature in order to save your husband’s life, she wonders, as she awaits with increasing anxiety for the ‘miracle’ that will show Torvald loves her as a real, flawed human being and more than his soft, little nightingale. She blames her husband and her father for her life of imprisonment in her doll’s house. She finally takes responsibility for her own life, but at terrible cost. Can we, the audience, forgive her that?
This play resonates with every woman struggling to juggle life, love, work and children without drowning, either in the perilous seas of debt or the deceptively safer, ‘yummy mummy’ floods of sentiment. Nora embroiders, while her rather sinister friend Kristine Linde ‘knits’. Indeed she does.
A Doll’s House is peculiarly apposite, given it was written 12 decades ago. The catalyst for the denouement is an equivalent of today’s payday lender. The inescapability of debt is at the heart of the play.
Having seen this play several times at The Young Vic, I was intrigued to see how it had developed after the second run and into the transfer. It did not disappoint. It had acquired extra depth and Hattie Morahan’s performance, after a fantastic 12 months for her career from the opening south of the river last summer, was more mature, more compelling and more brilliant than ever. She has become one of the most watchable young British actresses on film and stage.
There were a couple of cast changes since last year. Caroline Martin brought some subtle nuances to the difficult part of Kristine Linde and was dark and dramatic beneath a demure demeanor. Her character is not likable, even though she is honest, or perhaps because of it. Her interaction with Krogstad has a kind of strange justice about it, the terrible lesson of modern life as it must have been back in Ibsen’s day: that too often it is the nasty baddies who find happiness, or perhaps that this apparent badness is just a product of unimaginable difficulty in life. And Leda Hodgson portrayed Anna, the only normal person in the house but the one who had possibly made the greatest sacrifice to be there, with lovable gentleness.
Nick Fletcher has grown completely into the role of Nils Krogstad. It was no longer possible to tell he was acting. And Dominic Rowan was again a terrific Torvald. His drunk scene in particular is wonderful and provides some great light relief as the play moves towards its awful conclusion. Steve Toussaint was also even stronger than before as Dr Jens Rank, a strong force of nature with a debilitating illness.
It is wonderful to see a play progress from a first preview to a West End transfer and opening, to see how the separate parts of that play change and develop and bring a new force to what was already strong. Carrie Cracknell’s revolving set has lost none of its intimate charm in the grander setting of The Duke of York’s Theatre. It draws the audience in. As men and women still struggling with the issues surrounding Nora and Torvald, we take the rollercoaster journey with Ibsen’s characters. I came out laughing, shaking and exhausted at the same time. It has so many lessons for life, even now.
A quick word about Nora’s children, who have small but significant parts.
At the performance I saw, Jon Helmer was played by Tommy Rodger and Ivar by Shane Lyons-Cording. These two beautiful boys both managed to bring the sense of trusting mischief their parts require, while from Shane we also got the early intimations of distress at his mother’s distraction. How could Nora do it? I still can’t answer that question, but am lucky that I don’t have to. It has become easier today for women, even with children, to choose neither to knit or embroider if they prefer not to, but to go out to work. The fact that A Doll’s House remains so watchable though, suggests that many of the struggles faced by Nora, Torvald, Jens and Kristine remain as relevant for us today as they were a century ago.
Review by Ruth Gledhill @ruthiegledhill
Thursday 15th August 2013