Even though he resembled everyone’s idea of a Victorian gentleman, Ibsen’s radical 1879 study of a woman’s place in a patriarchal, middle class Norwegian society, is often cited as a crucial accelerant to the nascent female emancipation movement at the end of the 19th century. It is therefore fitting that in the week we celebrate International Women’s Day, that writer Stef Smith has adapted it to ‘ Nora: A Doll’s House’, examining how one of the most famous characters in theatre would have fared in three different time periods. The result is complex, confusing and frustrating in equal measure.
We meet Nora as three separate entities simultaneously on stage. Nora 1918 (Kirsty Rider) cuts a frustrated figure, married and caged at the end of World War One as the suffrage movement is reaching its apogee; Nora 1968 (Jodie McNee) is found at the height of the cultural revolution allowing a fuller exploration of equality and her own sexuality; Nora 2018 (Yusra Warsama) is a modern woman with her expectations of fairness being constantly frustrated. They circle round the figure of Thomas (William Ash), their husband in all three iterations, a man who has recently been given promotion in his work as a financier, and who treats Nora as his ‘skylark’, a subordinate, rather than a partner in life. The adaptation follows the Ibsen original closely in storyline, with Nora illegally borrowing money (without Thomas’s knowledge), in order to pay the bills during her husband’s recent illness. The subsequent tale of blackmail and redemption, culminating in Nora’s liberation from the shackles of her domestic oppression, are amongst the most famous in theatre and even 150 years after it was written her decision still has the power to shock and surprise.
Where Smith diverges from the source material, the results are decidedly mixed. The writing was, in parts, beautifully descriptive; a scene with Rider describing her experience voting for the first time, cutting herself with the ballot paper, was spellbinding in its execution. Similarly, Warsama and McNee were able to mine their respective Nora’s for sympathy and elicit frustration in the audience at their predicament. Often though, the reimagining of Nora felt caricatured and simplistic, especially so for 2018, reduced to a swearing, teasing figure, without any of the dignity that is surely her essential quality. I found her scene with Daniel (Naeem Hayat), coquettish and teasing in the original, particularly overblown and uncharacteristic. In addition, the decision to have Christine (confidante to Nora) played by the same three actors as Nora was an unnecessary confusion, often changing roles onstage mid-scene adding to a muddled first half which lacked clarity. It was noticeable that a significant number of the seats were not occupied after the interval which means I was not the only one disorientated and disgruntled.
The shorter second act (just 45 minutes) improved the overall piece both in tone and resolution of the separate storyline, however the disappointment of the audience at the end was palpable with the shocking decision to replace one of the most stunning endings in the entire theatrical canon. ‘The Door Slam Heard Around The World’ that so electrifies and empowers an audience at the conclusion, was completely absent, replaced by a rambling monologue from all three Nora characters which lacked both theatricality and originality. Direction by Bryony Shanahan and Design of Amanda Stooley did not help the clarity and lacked innovation necessary for the space, the actors were often stationery and with their backs to audience and this was only partially resolved by the now familiar trope of the stage revolve
For a play that has at its heart a message of strength and empowerment of the role of women in society it does neither well. I was fortunate enough to see the original ‘Doll’s House’ twice previously on this stage, in 1985 (Brenda Blethyn) and 2012 (Cush Jumbo) and have no doubt a strong production of the original play would have created an entire new generation of Ibsen fans, whilst honouring IWD in a more fitting way.
Nora: A Doll’s House continues at The Royal Exchange Theatre until 2nd April, https://www.royalexchange.co.uk/whats-on-and-tickets/nora-a-doll-s-house
Reviewer: Paul Wilcox
Reviewed: 9th March 2022
North West End Rating: ★★