Carrie Cracknell’s production of Henrik Ibsen’s1879 classic play, A Doll’s House, transfers to the West End after a critically acclaimed run at the Young Vic, and loses none of its ability to captivate, shock, and provoke debate. (Cover image Richard Hubert Smith)
One of the most striking things about theatre is its ability to make itself immediate. When well produced, something about the proximity of the stage drags writing from decades or centuries ago into the present. Even so, it is surprising quite how much A Doll’s House has to say about gender politics in a Britain full of passionate protest about female faces on bank notes, celebrity domestic abuse and anonymous, aggressive misogyny on social media.
Image Johan Persson
The plot follows Nora Helmer over the Christmas period – struggling as a debt she has hidden from her straight-laced husband Torvald becomes a bargaining chip in her moneylender’s desperate plans to win back his job at the bank in which Torvald is a manager. The tension this creates is exquisitely managed as the drama plays out, eliciting the kind of gasps and cries of “no!” from the audience at The Duke of Yorks Theatre that are usually reserved for the most scandalous of stories shared between friends in the pub.
Our view of the Helmer family’s life is greatly enhanced by Ian MacNeil’s revolving stage that affords us an intimate view of the entire ground floor of their apartment. What begins as a sentimental John-Lewis-Christmas-advert-esque montage, with characters carrying presents and trailing scarves and gloves through the revolving rooms, soon becomes an almost voyeuristic examination of the web of lies spun by Nora, as private areas hidden upstage are rotated round to the audience.
Images by Johan Persson & Richard Hubert Smith
This nod to the doll’s house of the title is particularly effective from the upper circle, where the whole set is visible at all times and you can almost feel the story playing out as if you were directing your childhood toys.
At the center of this production is Hattie Morahan’s incredible performance. Her Nora is seductive – at times both characters and audience seem hypnotised by her. However, the subtlety in this performance means she is also able to run the spectrum between repulsive and admirable, pathetic and inspirational.
Morahan’s fidgety, head-shaking, wide-eyed, explosive Nora produces an incredible complexity that is completely enthralling. Similarly compelling is Nick Fletcher’s desperate moneylender, clearly unsuited to the act of blackmail he is attempting, and Dominic Rowan’s cloying Torvald.
The play ignites a debate about the power of language to create illusions, whether loving or destructive, that feels utterly contemporary. Torvald’s pet names for his wife are revealed as a form of control, and much of Nora’s fantasy comes from her attempts to control the language used by those around her. What is left ambiguous is whether this is a result of individual corruption or societal pressure; we are shown little of the society in which the Helmers move.
A Doll’s House, then, is a self-contained microcosm that asks us to look inside ourselves and examine our relationships. This production certainly achieves that – I lost myself entirely in the denouement, as a 150-year-old play made itself so present that it was as if the theatre was empty and there was nothing else aside from the revelations in the interior room I was hurtling headfirst towards.