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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How "cultural terrorism" became a matter of international law

The destruction of manuscripts in Timbuktu became a landmark case for cultural terrorism.

When Hegel said of Africa in Lectures on the Philosophy of History that it was “no historical part of the World; it has no movement or development to exhibit”, he was lamenting the perceived lack of a European-style Enlightenment on the continent. Today, we know better. The region south of the Sahara, in particular, is rightly regarded as one of the intellectual centres of the world, with the 13th to the 17th centuries an especially fertile period for the production of its celebrated manuscripts.

In English, we principally know the name “Timbuktu” as a stand-in for the idea of something far away and inaccessible. Since 2012, the name has been said for another reason, because in the spring of that year the Tuareg rebel group Ansar Dine, allied with Islamist militants, set about destroying the city’s ancient mausoleums and manuscripts. Just as the more recent destruction of Syria’s ancient buildings in Palmyra by Isis has captured international attention, the losses at Timbuktu are now irrevocably part of the layers of memory around the old city.

The loss of these unique objects (40,000 manuscripts are thought to have been destroyed, along with 16 mausoleums of Sufi saints and scholars) has raised awareness of what we might call “cultural terrorism”, and has produced an unprecedented circumstance in international law. Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi, a Tuareg alleged Islamic militant, has appeared at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, accused of war crimes relating to the destruction of cultural sites. It is the first case of its kind.

At the British Library’s new exhibition about the intellectual heritage of the subregion, “West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song”, the adviser Gus Casely-Hayford tells me that the “war crimes” label is completely accurate. The attitude to ancient manuscripts in places such as Timbuktu is different from that in the west, he explains: they are living documents, meant to be used. An attack on them is an attack on a whole way of life.

“Artefacts like these are the centre of the community, the focus of identity,” he says. “Al-Mahdi wanted it to be known that he is a teacher; a man who understands the significance of destroying these things.”

Marion Wallace, curator of African collections at the British Library, explains that many of the surviving hundreds of thousands of manuscripts – rescued by local “book traffickers” who smuggled them out of harm’s way – are now to be housed in a state-of-the-art research facility. As we examine a loose-leaf “saddlebag” Quran dating from the late 18th or early 19th century, Wallace explains that such manuscripts were never intended to be behind glass, but were designed to be read one page at a time while, say, travelling on a camel.

There is a photograph in the exhibition of an imam sitting on the floor of his sitting room, exhibiting a manuscript for the camera. Around the centuries-old document, you can see a pile of clothes to one side of him, a tray of drinks on the other, the television in the background: the rest of life.

“I can remember being in a library in Timbuktu before 2012,” says Casely-Hayford. “It was poorly lit and there were shafts of light streaming in from the small windows. You could see specks in the light, fragments of manuscript in the very atmosphere.” In this part of the world, erosion is a mark of respect and reverence, rather than regrettable decay.

The exhibition hopes to set this working manuscript culture in the context of West Africa’s intellectual tradition, stressing the continuity from ancient writing through music, storytelling and cloth design. Yet there is tension here, too: although many hundreds of thousands of precious artefacts were saved from destruction, they will likely never be handled in the same way again. Libraries and museums can preserve the past, but they are less good at letting it breathe. 

West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song is at the British Library until 16 February, 2016. See

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror