It’s hard for me to imagine what audiences thought of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House when it premiered in Copenhagen in 1879. Even today, the choices Nora makes at the end of the play have the power to shock (I can imagine a fair amount of tongues wagging if that was to happen in a respectable middle class family today). On the other hand, the triumph of the Young Vic production is not the feminist politics, it’s the people: passionate, relatable, likable people we want to see them through their tough times. It doesn’t quite work that way.
The production, directed by Carrie Cracknell in a new version of the play by Simon Stephens, is set in the 19th century, but it doesn’t have the buttoned up quality of period pieces: Nora (as played by Hattie Morahan) and Torvald (as played by Dominic Rowan) are an immensely sexy couple. Not just beautiful, but full of desire. This is not late 19th century as seen in Cranford. They are respectable in front of other people, but essentially they can’t keep their hands off each other. They are in love, even if they don’t begin to understand each other. Which makes the end of the play all the more heartbreaking: the conflict in the final scene is raw, desperate, physical. The production has a beating pulse going through it, not least because of the immediacy of Simon Stephens’ writing.
Occasionally, I have had problems with Hattie Morahan’s performances in the past. Her acting can be stylised and, if not supported by a strong production, can misfire. No such reservations here: she plays both the girl and the woman in Nora without making her look dubious or hard. She lives through her character’s revelations with innocence and passion that are hard to resist. I could say she was superb in the crescendo of the final fifteen minutes but that would disregard that she was superb throughout.
Dominic Rowan, an actor with a twinkle in his eye and great comic gifts, matches her without missing a beat. Torvald can be selfish and clueless, not an attractive combination. His Torvald is still clueless, but has such basic and real need for his wife that it’s difficult not to feel for him. Rowan also manages to squeeze five minutes of comedy gold in the final act, which I didn’t think was possible in a play like A Doll’s House.
All performances are great, including the children (who move in this world with the ease and energy of children everywhere) and the six months old baby (yes, for about three minutes, there is a baby on stage. A theatrical first for me, and it’s so much fun feeling the audience reaction: complete silence but also the one single thought: “there is a baby on stage!). Special mention to Nick Fletcher playing Nils Krogstad: Krogstad should be the baddie of the piece, but Fletcher plays him with quiet and deep desperation, adding a whole new layer of humanity to the play.
One final thought on the (revolving) set: pieces of furniture built at 2/3 the size they should be and the revolve giving the audience different perspectives, this is literally a doll’s house of a set. The revolve is used to great effect: not to confuse or obscure, but to illuminate, and the scene changes, as well as being seamless, have a musical quality.
An enthusiastic thumbs up from me, don’t miss it.