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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The Underground Railroad is a novel which offers hope for the very strong of heart

Whitehead’s prize-winning novel of slavery in America is his finest work yet.

30 DOLLARS REWARD will be given to any person who will deliver to me, or confine in any gaol in the state so that I can get her again, a likely yellow NEGRO GIRL 18 years of age who ran away nine months past. She is an artfully lively girl and will, no doubt, attempt to pass as a free person, but has a noticeable scar on her elbow, occasioned by a burn.

 

“Want ads” for runaway slaves serve as section breaks throughout Colson Whitehead’s searing novel The Underground Rail­road, which takes a familiar story – concerning the manifold injustices of American slavery – and brings it to terrible, terrifying new life. Whitehead does so by revealing, in close view, just how brutal and businesslike were efforts to ignore, obscure and destroy the dignity and humanity of so many men and women for so very long.

The novel begins with an auction:

 

Onlookers chewed fresh oysters and hot corn as the auctioneers shouted into the air. The slaves stood naked on the platform. There was a bidding war over a group of Ashanti studs, those Africans of renowned industry and musculature, and the foreman of a limestone quarry bought a bunch of pickaninnies in an astounding bargain.

 

Thereafter we learn that “A young buck from strong tribal stock got customers into a froth”, that “A slave girl squeezing out pups was like a mint, money that bred money”, and that a mother “maintained a reserve of maternal feeling after the loss of her five children – three dead before they could walk and the others sold off when they were old enough to carry water and grab weeds around the great house”.

Finally – and this is still just in the opening pages of the novel – we discover, through the eyes of a young woman named Cora, what happens when any of these persons resists living as purchased property: “She had seen men hung from trees and left for buzzards and crows. Women carved open to the bones with the cat-o’-nine-tails. Bodies alive and dead roasted on pyres. Feet cut off to prevent escape and hands cut off to prevent theft.”

Whether in spite or because of these consequences – and mindful, even haunted by the knowledge, that her mother managed to escape her own bondage – Cora decides to join a fellow slave named Caesar in running away. In Whitehead’s treatment, a metaphor for the secret network of support that helped black slaves reach the free (or at least freer) American north and Canada becomes an actual makeshift train that travels underground, which Cora and Caesar ride across the South. They are in constant peril, relieved by passing periods of respite: sleeping in a bed for the first time, learning to read and write, and even coming into a small amount of money, which, Cora soon discovers, “was new and unpredictable and liked to go where it pleased”.

Throughout their escape, they are pursued by a vicious slave-catcher called Ridgeway, who is motivated by far more than merely financial reward: “Charging through the dark, branches lashing his face, stumps sending him ass over elbow before he got up again. In the chase his blood sang and glowed.” Ridgeway, Cora and their respective others meet throughout the novel, their positions of advantage and opportunity revolving in ways that make for flat-out suspenseful reading. Many others are grievously harmed in the meantime, as they move through a small-town, 19th-century American world of crafty and hypocritical politesse and ritualised violence. The violence is never rendered more awfully than in the festive, Friday-night lynching sessions that take place at a picturesque park which Cora watches from an attic refuge.

The Underground Railroad, awarded the American National Book Award for Fiction last month, is Whitehead’s sixth novel. Following the more playful novel of manners Sag Harbor and Zone One, a zombie romp, it is his most ambitious and accomplished book since the Pulitzer-nominated John Henry Days of 2001. In fact, the lack of literary showiness – vividly presenting the rudely built underground railway and the hard lives of those riding it – makes The Underground Railroad perhaps his finest work. Although the repeated encounters between Cora and Ridgeway across such a sprawling set will strain the credulity of anyone save a diehard Victor Hugo fan, Whitehead is a confident enough writer to let their lines of escape, pursuit and capture braid and break apart again and again, building to an exciting and rending conclusion. It is one that offers hope for the very strong of heart. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage