First published in The Times, Monday March 25 2019
A Doll’s House by Ibsen is one of those theatrical gifts that keep on giving. The play about a middle-class woman, Nora Helmer, who comes to realise that her seemingly perfect marriage is a pretty cage, has been endlessly updated since its premiere in 1879. Lucas Hnath’s sequel, A Doll’s House, Part 2, which speculates on what happened to Nora after she closed the door on her old life, opened on Broadway in 2017.
Stef Smith’s Nora, the first production in the Citizens Women’s season, is less an adaptation of Ibsen than a layered reflection of the playwright’s themes. Instead of going down the more traditional route of updating the action, Smith skips between three separate time frames and three different Noras, all of whom face remarkably similar predicaments and epiphanies.
Pic: Mihaela Bodlovic
Alternating between 1918 and the expansion of suffrage to women in the United Kingdom, the social change of the late-1960s, and the shifting tectonic plates of the present day, Smith shows how, despite certain advances over the last century, many women still find themselves twisting in a domestic trap similar to the one occupied by the original Nora. There is something depressingly familiar about the situation endured by Anna Russell-Martin’s 2018 incarnation. She resorts to crime to service the family debt while attempting to spare her husband’s (Tim Barrow) fragile ego.
This bold approach to a classic is tantalising, but the result is curiously flat and dreary. This is partly the fault of the playwright, who eschews lyricism for po-faced platitudes and, increasingly, sloganeering. Sharper direction, from Elizabeth Freestone, would have helped the clarity and dramatic impact. There are a couple of diverting performances, from Maryam Hamidi as Sixties-era Nora, and Michael Dylan as Nathan, her conflicted blackmailer, but too often, the actors appear stranded and uncertain in their roles.
Pic: Mihaela Bodlovic
Smith’s version and this production at least confirm the ways in which Nora’s dilemma has increased in meaning and relevance with age. Yet this script is too blunt and the characters too thinly drawn, to really stir and provoke. The critic James Hunekar wrote that the slammed door at the end of Ibsen’s play “reverberated across the roof of the world.” Here, a hectoring coda ends up weakening the impact of even that momentous gesture.