A Doll's House - review

Sexuality and sacrifice in a new production of Ibsen's play.

A mother indulging her two eldest children in a game of hide and seek; a husband and wife exchanging fleeting kisses when no one is around to see. Such scenes, timeless in their banality, form the backbone of the Young Vic's production of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, one which gracefully transcends the historical context of late 19th-century Norway by accentuating universal patterns of human behaviour.

Hattie Morahan is simply radiant as Nora, her eyes twinkling with mischief as she teases and toys with husband Torvald and his best friend Dr Rank. Costume designer Gabrielle Dalton’s choice of elegant Victorian dresses cling to her body in a way that makes it more than clear why men simply adore her. Torvald on the other hand, played by Dominic Rowan, exudes natural bonhomie, managing to be both terribly charming and annoyingly self-satisfied at the same time.

These are characters whom the audience grows to care about, whether it is Yolanda Kettle’s Helene, the young maid prone to crumbling into the most endearing of nervous wrecks, or Steve Toussaint’s tender portrayal of gentle giant Dr Rank. The scene where Nora and Torvald learn that the latter, who is suffering from a terminal illness, will no longer come visit them is particularly moving. When characters are portrayed with such warmth as they are here, it feels only natural that an audience should empathize with their sense of loss and grief.

The fear that a seemingly idyllic family life could come crashing down to a sorry end inspires a level of tension in the play almost giddy in its intensity. Nora’s frenzied, trembling dancing in those few seconds before the interval is the very embodiment of such angst.

At the end of the play with Nora gone, the audience is, like Torvald, left abandoned, its questions left unanswered. Can Torvald, for example, really be blamed for not taking his wife seriously? Or, to phrase it more explicitly, if her sexuality was Nora’s own chosen means of communication with her husband, is it for us to judge Torvald for taking the bait? Is it not perhaps Torvald, in fact, who has been manipulated all along? And, I am left wondering, to what extent has the power dynamic in relationships really changed since Ibsen’s day?

There is a very poignant moment towards the end of the performance when Torvald and Nora  each consider their own personal definition of sacrifice. “Even for the person he loves”, says Torvald, no man would ever sacrifice his honour. Nora’s response, that “Thousands and thousands and thousands of women have done”, is heartbreaking.

A Doll's House runs at the Young Vic, London SE1 until 4 August

Hattie Morahan as Nora and Dominic Rowan as Torvald in A Doll's House (Photo: Johan Persson)
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High explosive, damp squibs: the history of bombing raids

Governing from the Skies by Thomas Hippler examines the changing role of aerial bombing.

Bombing from the air is about a hundred years old. As a strategic option, it eroded the distinction between combatants and non-combatants: it was, Thomas Hippler argues in his thought-provoking history of the bombing century, the quintessential weapon of total war. Civilian populations supported war efforts in myriad ways, and so, total-war theorists argued, they were a legitimate object of attack. Bombing might bring about the collapse of the enemy’s war economy, or create a sociopolitical crisis so severe that the bombed government would give up. Despite efforts to protect non-combatants under international law, civilian immunity has been and continues to be little more than an ideal.

Hippler is less concerned with the military side of bombing, and has little to say about the development of air technology, which, some would insist, has defined the nature and limits of bombing. His concern is with the political dividends that bombing was supposed to yield by undermining social cohesion and/or the general willingness to continue a war.

The model for this political conception of bombing was the colonial air policing practised principally by the British between the world wars. Hippler observes that the willingness to use air power to compel rebel “tribesmen” in Afghanistan, Iraq and Africa to cease insurgency became the paradigm for later large-scale campaigns during the Second World War, and has been reinvented in the age of asymmetric warfare against non-state insurgencies: once again in Iraq and Afghanistan – and, indeed, anywhere that a drone can reach.

The problem, as Hippler knows, is that this type of bombing does not work. A century of trying to find the right aerial platform and armament, from the German Gotha bombers of 1917 to the unmanned missile carriers of today, has not delivered the political and strategic promise that air-power theorists hoped for. Air power is at its best when it is either acting as an ancillary to surface forces or engaged in air-to-air combat. The Israeli strike against Arab air forces at the start of the 1967 war was a classic example of the efficient military use of air power. In the Second World War, the millions of bombs dropped on Europe produced no social upheaval, but the US ­decision to engage in all-out aerial counterattack in 1944 destroyed the Luftwaffe and opened the way to the destruction of Germany’s large and powerful ground forces.

The prophet of bombing as the means to a quick, decisive solution in modern war was the Italian strategist Giulio Douhet, whose intellectual biography Hippler has written. Douhet’s treatise The Command of the Air (1921) is often cited as the founding text of modern air power. He believed that a more humane way to wage war was to use overwhelming strength in the air to eliminate the enemy’s air force, and then drop bombs and chemical weapons in a devastating attack on enemy cities. The result would be immediate capitulation, avoiding another meat-grinder such as the First World War. The modern nation, he argued, was at its most fragile in the teeming industrial cities; social cohesion would collapse following a bombing campaign and any government, if it survived, would have to sue for peace.

It has to be said that these views were hardly original to Douhet. British airmen had formed similar views of aerial power’s potential in 1917-18, and although the generation that commanded the British bomber offensive of 1940-45 knew very little of his thinking, they tried to put into practice what could be described as a Douhetian strategy. But Douhet and the British strategists were wrong. Achieving rapid command of the air was extremely difficult, as the Battle of Britain showed. Bombing did not create the conditions for social collapse and political capitulation (despite colossal human losses and widespread urban destruction) either in Britain, Germany and Japan, or later in Korea and Vietnam. If Douhet’s theory were to work at all, it would be under conditions of a sudden nuclear exchange.

Hippler is on surer ground with the continuity in colonial and post-colonial low-­intensity conflicts. Modern asymmetric warfare, usually against non-state opponents, bears little relation to the total-war school of thinking, but it is, as Hippler stresses, the new strategy of choice in conflicts. Here too, evidently, there are limits to the bombing thesis. For all the air effort put into the conflict against Isis in Syria and Iraq, it is the slow advance on the ground that has proved all-important.

The most extraordinary paradox at the heart of Hippler’s analysis is the way that most bombing has been carried out by Britain and the United States, two countries that have long claimed the moral high ground. It might be expected that these states would have respected civilian immunity more than others, yet in the Second World War alone they killed roughly 900,000 civilians from the air.

The moral relativism of democratic states over the century is compounded of claims to military necessity, an emphasis on technological innovation and demonisation of the enemy. For all the anxieties being aired about militant Islam, the new Russian nationalism and the potential power of China, it is the United States and Britain that need to be watched most closely.

Richard Overy’s books include “The Bombing War: Europe (1939-1945)” (Penguin)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times