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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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era