“Goodbye, Torvald”. Nora’s final words as she slams the door on her husband and children are, understandably, not as shocking as they would have been when the play premièred in 1879 Denmark. A Doll’s House is well known to have caused some scandal at the time for its assault on nineteenth-century notions of marriage and domestic life, yet unsurprisingly, Henrik Ibsen’s classic has lost a certain edge. Some of the exchanges between Nora and her husband Torvald are, by today’s standards, utterly laughable, and many a chortle from the audience greeted some of the play’s worst old-fashioned howlers. These laughs only emphasise how much things have changed.
Divorces, wives leaving their husbands, and single, independent women are no longer dramatic matter that will cause much of a stir. Yet despite its ailing radicalism, the play remains hugely compelling. While A Doll’s House may not have the same emancipatory shock power it once did, as a study of marriage, of the dynamics of relationships, and of the immense pressure that builds from keeping secrets, it is a brilliant piece of theatre. And this production at the Young Vic Theatre delivers a stellar performance with exceptional acting, an innovative set design and elegantly-understated Scandinavian costume.
Simon Stephens’ new English version of the play, commissioned by the theatre, brings Ibsen’s dialogue gently up-to-date, but largely remains true to the original text. The plot is set entirely in the Helmers’ house, in which Nora and her husband Torvald live with their three children. The house itself plays a role in this production: it spins in dizzying revolutions, allowing for some charmingly cinematic montages of the Helmer’s domestic life (cheerily decorated for a Scandinavian Christmas). This spinning house, however, also becomes evocative of the Helmer’s claustrophobic marriage and of Nora’s spiralling loss of control. It’s a brilliant device, and although a small set, given the size of the Young Vic Theatre, it greatly contributed to the play’s tightly wound tension.
Nora (Hattie Morahan) is a fluttering, flirty, at times childlike woman, while Torvald (Dominic Rowan) plays her sickly-sweet father figure, calling Nora an unending series of bird-names (“My little skylark”; “my bluebird”) and lecturing her about spending too much money. When Nora’s old friend Kristine (Susannah Wise) comes to call, however, Nora confesses her big secret - she has borrowed money in order to pay for a rest cure in Italy to soothe Torvald’s nerves, but forged the signature on the loan to keep it secret from her husband.
The moneylender, however, is Krogstad, one of Torvald’s underlings at the bank. Krogstad, played by with convincing callousness by Nick Fletcher, reveals himself as an ugly, threatening man, when he delivers an ultimatum to Nora: either she must stop Torvald from firing him, or he will reveal the entire deception and ruin Torvald’s reputation. Events all seem to conspire against Nora, and the pressure builds further when her dying friend Doctor Rank (Steve Toussaint) declares his love for her. Her practical friend Kristine, an independent woman and a widow, tries to help, but ultimately realises Nora would better off with the secret out in the open.
Morahan’s Nora is outstanding throughout. Her fluffy silliness crosses over into frantic nervousness as we learn more and more how deeply she is mired in the mess of her secret. The psychological pressure of this character is visible in Morahan in every gesture, and in her increasingly husky voice. In her final argument with Torvald, she perfectly conveys the horror of Nora’s realisation that her marriage has been a pretty lie; that she has been a doll in his house. Her only scene that was less compelling than the rest was the ‘Tarantella’ dance: this was a scene that I imagined desperate and horrifying, but the music and lighting effects were too heavy-handed in evoking madness. Dominic Rowan is also excellent - his Torvald is complex, repressed, and by the end, profoundly unlikeable. He begins as a rather benign but condescending husband, but in his final confrontation with Nora, his selfishness and brutality break loose.
A Doll’s House may be dated in its social politics, but even viewed as a historical play, it strikes the odd uncomfortable note, suggesting that our smug superiority in how far women have come may not be entirely warranted. These politics aside, however, the production is incredibly powerful no matter which way you look at it, and is definitely not to be missed.