Young Vic Theatre, London – 21 March 2020
To those who know Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, Stef Smith and Glasgow Citz/Young Vic’s radical reworking will come as something of a shock. The Young Vic’s previous production, staged in 2012, directed by Carrick Cracknell was, by these standards, fairly conventional. All the same, it gave us a Nora in full emotional flood with Hattie Morahan. Three years ago, another production by Danish company Fix&Foxy took us into an actual South Ken apartment with a real, married couple going through nerve-biting times. I hope they came out of it alive.
For those who don’t know Ibsen’s original, Smith’s A Doll’s House may prove initially a little confusing. For Smith, putting the emphasis well and truly on Nora – the wife who walks out on husband and children in an act of extreme social as well as personal rebellion – has her played by three Noras.
In a clever, complex – and generally successful with a few caveats reworking – her Nora enacts their journey to freedom through intertwining time slots, each one inhabiting a different time: 1916, 1968 and 2018 – 50 year spans marking steps along the way towards women’s emancipation with the winning of the vote, the birth of the contraception pill and the start of the #MeToo Movement. How deft is that?!
‘A woman walks into a house’ is the opening sentence and Tom Piper’s three doorways frame the production as an arching concept within which swirls the 105 minutes of Ibsen’s extraordinary – for the time in which it was written – clarion call to female liberation.
Yet, many have argued, Ibsen was not in himself a feminist. In his notes for A Doll’s House, he apparently wrote that ‘a woman cannot be herself in modern society’ since it is ‘an exclusively male society with laws made by men and with prosecutors and judges who assess feminine conduct from a masculine standpoint’. Ibsen wrote about what he saw argues Richard Eyre who has directed several notable recent Ibsen productions.
Elizabeth Freestone’s production of Smith’s vision nonetheless ups the ante in no uncertain terms. A swirling, three-dimensional, multi-faceted whirligig of accumulating frustration, marital coercion and control, recognisable to any contemporary mother and wife, its final image echoes that of Shakespeare’s Globe 2018 success, Morgan Lloyd Morgan’s Emilia with its feminist rallying cry.
She also underscores the time swoops in Tom Piper’s elegant, abstract setting with constant movement and a remarkable intercutting of characters and their time sequences – sometimes even within mid-sentence.
Luke Norris’ Thomas, Nora’s husband, for example switches from Edwardian Thomas – upright and uptight in grey suit – to suddenly becoming a far more snarling, contemporary interpreter of male domestic control.
Given the shape of the Young Vic – three sided on this occasion – Freestone’s cast have their work cut out trying to make sure all sides are given their full value in terms of sight and sound.
And there is an added complication. Whilst Luke Norris provides Thomas for all three time periods, as does Mark Arends’ Nathan, three actresses play Nora: Anna Russell-Martin as 2018 Nora with a strong Scottish accent; Natalie Klamar as the 1968 version and Amaka Okafor as the nearest to Ibsen’s own time-frame – for me, by far the clearest.
All three add up, however, to a fascinating kaleidoscopic view of women’s role and the limitations felt down the past century.
Swopping accents and time can be as challenging for audiences as it can for performers. And Smith doesn’t quite make the third element in Nora’s household – Thomas’s friend, Dr Rank, here recoined as Daniel – either dangerous enough or fundamental to the actual scenario.
Be that as it may, that Freestone and her cast contrive to make this Doll’s House so urgent, provocative and familiar all at the same time says something about Smith’s overall concept and Freestone’s triumphant execution of it.
Despite the challenges, and judging by the Young Vic’s typically youthful, mixed audience, this is a production to which they can relate and which, so far as I could see, kept them on the edge of their seats.