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13 February 2020

Nora: A Doll’s House explores Ibsen’s classic in three different contexts

Stef Smith’s era-jumping adaptation goes out of its way to demonstrate why the story remains compelling.

By Rosemary Waugh

Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House is famous for two reasons. First, the play sparked outrage when it premiered in Scandinavia in 1879. Second, the action closes with the heroine, Nora Helmer, rejecting her stifling existence, and walking out on her husband and children – with a decisive slam of the front door.

The other notable quality is its lasting appeal. In less than a year, three major productions of the proto-feminist play will have found their way into London theatres. In September 2019, Rachel O’Riordan at the Lyric Hammersmith directed Tanika Gupta’s version set in colonialist India, with Nora reimagined as Niru, a Bengali woman married to a white husband who fetishizes his local bride. Come June this year, another new take on Ibsen, directed by Jamie Lloyd – a director known for his hyper-sleek and unashamedly cool brand of theatre – will open at the Playhouse Theatre.

Sandwiched between them is Stef Smith’s era-jumping adaptation, which premiered in March last year at Tramway in Glasgow (produced by the Citizens Theatre) and is now at the Young Vic. All three lay claim to being a “radical” rethink of the original – indeed, the marketing blurbs for the Young Vic and the Playhouse Theatre both use this exact word – but their programming implies that the fundamentals of the 19th-century classic, however they’re repackaged, retain a perennial relevance.

Smith’s rewrite goes out of its way to demonstrate why the story remains compelling. Nora: A Doll’s House, as the play is slightly re-titled, uses three Noras. One is alive in 1918, a landmark year for women’s suffrage; the second is living in 1968, witnessing the advent of the pill and abortion rights; and the third is a contemporary Scottish woman in 2018, the year of the #MeToo movement. In Elizabeth Freestone’s production, the Noras (played by Natalie Klamar, Amaka Okafor and Anna Russell-Martin) appear simultaneously. Their dialogue overlaps and they multirole as the other female character, Christine, as the time periods switch back and forth. The male characters, meanwhile, are played by three versatile actors who maintain their parts as Nora’s husband Thomas (Luke Norris), the couple’s friend Daniel (Zephryn Taitte) and the unwanted visitor Nathan (Mark Arends) while continually jumping across the decades.

It’s a clever concept but it comes at the expense of emotional connection. The characters sometimes seem like little more than representations of their respective generations. Some very heavy-handed signposting in the script to signal which year the women are in doesn’t help. For example, the 1918 Nora just so happens to have been out marking her first ballot paper that very afternoon, while the Sixties Nora has a not-so-casual chat with Christine that namechecks contraception, abortion and the decriminalisation of male homosexuality, all within about two sentences.

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The other, more substantial, problem is that it’s a missed opportunity to fully develop by far the most interesting and engaging third of the play: modern-day Nora (wonderfully performed by Russell-Martin). On the surface, Smith’s production appears to suggest little has changed for women from the First World War until now: that every age has its cohort of disempowered females self-medicating away the pain of pleasing anyone but themselves (#WeAreAllNora). Yet there’s a crucial difference between the modern and historic women. Both the 1918 and 1968 Noras are comfortably middle class. Nora of 2018, however, is very much working class. Whereas Ibsen’s Nora forged her father’s signature to borrow money for an extended holiday in Italy intended to restore her husband to health, Smith’s Scottish Nora forges the signature required for a payday loan, which she uses to keep the household barely afloat when her husband becomes severely depressed.

Despite their frequency, contemporary updates of Ibsen often flounder because they neglect to find a suitable parallel for the historically specific conditions informing the characters’ actions. For example, Ivo van Hove’s Hedda Gabler in 2016 at the National Theatre failed to convey any sense of why divorce was impossible for a wealthy, educated, modern woman, as played by Ruth Wilson. In making the 2018 Nora desperately poor, Smith taps into a vein of truth. A modern Ibsenite heroine – understood as a woman imprisoned by her circumstances – is not the bourgeois housewife, but the woman who knows there’ll be no homeless shelter open to her if she were to up and leave.

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In a taped-on final section, the play concludes with an awkward passage in which the historical women apologise for failing to liberate their modern counterpart. It rings hollow, but again dislodges an uncomfortable fact. Modern-day, working-class Nora wouldn’t qualify for an overdraft, let alone a mortgage; her historical equivalent might well have failed the minimum property requirements stated in the Representation of the People Act 1918. While modern Nora is, thanks to Sixties feminism, free to have sex without fear of pregnancy, she’s also forced to use sex as her sole bargaining chip when blackmailed or in need of financial support from men. Without the liberating effects of money, the social constraints we like to believe are of the past can easily reappear. And as long as that remains the case, A Doll’s House will retain its relevancy.

This article appears in the 26 Feb 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The death of privacy