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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Against the Law: Peter Wildeblood must be one of the bravest men who ever lived

BBC2's historical gay rights film evokes bewilderment, fear and agonising pain.

My head told me that Against the Law (26 July, 9pm), the BBC’s film about Peter Wildeblood, the only openly gay man to give evidence to Lord Wolfenden’s committee, wasn’t up to much. Wildeblood was one of the three men who in 1954 were convicted of buggery in the notorious Montagu case (the others being Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and his cousin Michael Pitt-Rivers) – a trial that led, thanks to unease about the verdict, to the inquiry that resulted in the Wolfenden report, which in 1957 recommended the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain.

The film is based on the book Wildeblood published (he was a journalist) after his release from Wormwood Scrubs. Its script, by Brian Fillis, was underpowered and off-puttingly didactic, and I couldn’t understand, at first, the decision to keep interrupting the drama with the spoken-to-camera recollections of a series of elderly gay men. But at some point my heart, which was aching, told my head to shut up. This is… good enough, I thought, watching the film’s last few moments, in which the 89-year-old Roger and the 77-year-old Percy tenderly kissed for the camera. I was mad for Roger. Did he remember Wolfenden? My dear, how could he ever forget it? At the time, he was having an affair with Lord Wolfenden’s son, Jeremy, which certainly added piquancy to the newspaper reports as he read them over breakfast.

If I’d been casting this piece, I might have gone for a floppy-haired Matthew Goode type for Wildeblood, the former public school boy – but that would have been my mistake. It’s hard to imagine a finer performance than the one given by Daniel Mays, an actor who is not even remotely floppy haired.

Here was all of the wit and compassion you find in Wildeblood’s prose, combined with emotions I’d hitherto only been able rather half-heartedly to imagine: bewilderment, fear, agonising pain. As Wildeblood watched his former lover, an RAF corporal called Edward McNally, turn Queen’s evidence during his trial, May’s face grew slack with disbelief. He looked, to me, as if some unknown hand was quietly disembowelling him. By which had he been most betrayed? Love, or the law of the land?

Everyone knows what followed, but it was horrible to see nevertheless. Mailbags were sewn; aversion therapy was discussed (the prison shrink, played with viper-like precision by Mark Gatiss, told Wildeblood he could either receive a series of electric shocks or a drug that would make him vomit for two days). I thought, not for the first time, that Wildeblood must have been one of the bravest men who ever lived – though it’s not as if he wanted for company: the director’s talking heads, silver of hair and soft of jowl, reminded us of this at every turn, and I was glad of the human punctuation they provided. For most of us, this stuff is history. For them, it had been life.

Some people are devoted to newts, and others to hobbits; a few enjoy recreating the battles of the Civil War. The film My Friend Jane (17 July, 7pm) got down and not very dirty with the Austen super-fans, by which I mean not those who have read Sanditon and The Watsons but types who like to dress in full Regency garb and dance to the sound of a spinet come Saturday night. Actually, it’s scarier than this. A former doctor, Joana Starnes, breathlessly described her new career as a writer of “top-tier JAF”. Translated, this means highly superior Jane Austen fan fiction. She’s produced seven JAF novels, which sounds like a lot until you discover that 60 come out every month.

Zack Pinsent, meanwhile, who is 22, makes his living as a period tailor in Hove, where he likes to promenade in fall-front trousers – a flap enables the gentleman thereby to pee – and top hat. I wanted to laugh at him, and all the other empire-line eccentrics in this odd little documentary. But there was something touching about their obsession; at least they didn’t attempt to intellectualise it, unlike those literary fan girls who have lately taken to writing entire books about why their lives would be meaningless without this or that great writer for company. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue