in a new version by Simon Stephens
at the Young Vic, Wednesday 11th July, 2012
Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House has, for me, always been a play whose importance I have been aware of but whose power as a piece of theatre has generally passed me by. It’s late nineteenth century realism and the central narrative arc has never effected me as an audience member or reader, and the progressive subject matter was overshadowed by what I deemed to be a rather dreary structuring. In Simon Stephens’ new version of the play at the Young Vic, however, under the direction of Carrie Cracknell, the play is viewed anew and comes across as an extremely modern take on gender relations.
Ian MacNeil’s revolving set is here a character all on its own, injecting some much-needed energy into the text and drawing attention to the themes of domesticity which run throughout. It is the doll’s house of the title, as we watch (in a sort of postmodern kind of way) puppets moved around and being told what to say by others. Nora, by extension, is merely the plaything of Torvald, for he has command of this ever-moving space whilst she whirls around it like a mouse in a maze. It is lit expertly by Guy Hoare, who allows us glimpses of certain things we shouldn’t see or goes dark just as we may learn new details.
Stephens’ text keeps the play intact, but updates some of the dialogue to make more sense to modern ears. Surprisingly, the dark images one may expect Stephens to insert into the play aren’t present, as he allows the play to speak for itself. The threats of doom instead come from Stuart Earl’s bass-laden music, which thunders through the auditorium to highlight the gravity of the situation (though, if I’m honest, it does seem a lot of fuss to be making over one forged signature. Just saying). Moments of comedy – the scene immediately post-party particularly – highlight the tragic sections.
Hattie Morahan’s performance as Nora steals the show, as she depicts a woman in the pits of despair with strength and reason. Though the references to madness sometimes go a little too far and tongue-acting sometimes becomes distracting, Nora’s dilemma makes sense. The final speech is delivered with such passion that it feels half the audience is going to get up and begin protesting for women’s rights. Good support is provided by Dominic Rowan’s condescending but still affable Torvald, Steve Toussaint’s gentle Doctor Rank and Susannah Wise’s smart and composed Kristine.
One hundred and thirty years after its original performance, A Doll’s House was in danger of becoming a text simply studied at school and sentenced to many straightforward run-of-the-mill future productions. Fortunately, Stephens and Cracknell demonstrate that Ibsen’s play is still a masterpiece and can still speak to us providing the time is taken to ensure the play makes sense to contemporary audiences. Even this many years later, the gender divides within the play are still maintained and traditional hierarchies in relationships show no signs of disappearing soon.
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