What a sweet cornerstone of domestic naturalism A Doll’s House is; this tale of a woman shaking free from normalisation and the tragedy of cis-genderhood is immediately recognisable and still provides the texture of theatrical womanhood today. And yet there is still this assumption that Ibsen’s play is only partially-viewed through a lens of female emancipation: “Fiddle-faddle” went one critic’s response to the notion that Nora could provide a feminist critique of society, and we are still battling with the notion that a great play demands something more proper to its station than mere womanhood, surely, goes the logic, there is some trumping universal humanity that turns a woman’s question into our question.
Perhaps in these romantically liquid days of pre-nups and pure dating, where divorce rates have long since outpaced the taboo of upping sticks for middle class women, some of the vanguardist punch has left Ibsen’s most famous play. And yet the lucid power of Simon Stephens’ translation, and its crystal views of a shattered bourgeois family, remain an eloquent testimony to the residual, nagging, subordinate position of women in the household – as old and durable as fireplaces and the institution of heterosexuality itself.
Certainly what was unthinkable for the late Victorians is now a smaller, thoughtful tragedy. But in keeping the historical interest at bay, and giving the extraneous characters stage time and consequence, we get something like a living period drama. Reinforcing this effect the revolve turns and turns – giving both a televisual sense and one of smooth examination. And while the language Stephens pitches for is not archaic, nor is it contemporary, operating as it does in a kind of formal period space. This runs the risk of being inert like a shapely calf pressed against a Philippe Starck ghost chair, but here in delicate hands we are given a design to approach the intimacy and transparency of our most defining and preoccupying institution.
Keenly pitched at historical concurrences, we are given the sense of the household as an expansive porous thing. This spinning homestead is not simply monolithic, a dulling tenebrous institution that stifles a woman’s spirit: rather what gives Ibsen’s play that presence as such a lightly-inhabited thing, this sense of oikonomia which passes its currents in and out of the institution which relies on Nora as much as it forms her. There is no doubt that finally, in leaving Nora leaves the entire edifices of malestream society in disarray.
By altering Ibsen’s ending, cutting the possibility of Nora’s continued entrapment, Simon Stephens gives this play a definite contemporary force. And this points perhaps to something anomalous in his intriguing suggestion when I interviewed him earlier this year, that Nora and that tragic onscreen womanhood for our times Mad Men‘s Betty Draper have certain parallels.
Foremost poor Betty Draper is trapped inside the sensuality of AMC’s production values; floating in the gilded lily-pond of the gaze the show encourages, she barely emerges. Her one night stand at the bar: impossible, anhedonic. Her trip to Italy where, dressed like a Fellini Contessa, a different modality of gender appears and just as quickly becomes a rote renewal of her and Don’s faltering romance. The subject is buried so deep – her extreme prettiness it’s own shield; so while at the same time we are given than quandary of beauty, asked to penetrate what is impenetrable, we are also shown that that shallow tragic penetration runs for all her depth. In Betty there is something far gone, distant as a curdled heaven – it is epochal and Americaine. What beguiled Khrushchev about post-war American plenty would bury his regime just as it would bury those caught in its privilege.
Nora is far less decided, she bubbles with the real, and the forces that emerge to trap her are seen to present their own counter-force. Hattie Morahan’s deeply mobile and ambiguous turn – an elegant blend of hysteria and momentum delivers this Nora as surfeit. In those fine lines between laughter and tears, there is something of the Gena Rowlands in Cassavetes’ Woman Under the Influence; this maddening sense of freedom channelled into stranged psychological cul de sacs, of the excess of energy derailed by the logic of gender. And yet almost too much, that Nora is sometimes too uncomfortable in her objecthood to trouble us. We are not given the disjuncture between Nora’s beauty and the price she pays for it – the key move for Ibsen’s triumph of realism over idealism, and an issue that has only grown through the mad century of advertising. So while Morahan is agile as a fox, accompanied by an excellent Cameronian stentorian Dominic Rowan as Torvald, she never quite drapes herself in the mink. Perhaps there could have been more Betty Draper in her after all; Nora is dressed to go out before we’ve even entered.
“It’s like the stage directions from an Ibsen play”says Mad Men‘s Joan to Peggy about her small classified for a Manhattan apartment with gentle approbation. The implication that small domestic neatness is all wrong for a young woman looking to experience the expansive light of the city. And yet this at once heimlich and Heimlichkeit production does just fine at giving us a debt-laden rendering of duty and familial obligation with which we’re familiar; a touch of coldness, a mark of class, and a story in which we still recognise a woman’s quandary as the central question.