The character of Nora Helmer in A Doll’s House has long challenged audiences, critics, and scholars. Is she towering feminist icon, disgrace, martyr, all of these, or none? It’s satisfying to find that the Young Vic’s production, now playing at BAM, doesn’t so much take up a stance as bust open the conversation, giving us instead a deeply flawed, impossible-to-reduce portrait of one of drama’s most fascinating characters.
Featuring a towering performance by Hattie Morahan in the lead role (she is, frankly, giving one of the most nuanced and impressive performances on any New York stage thus far this season — the stage equivalent of Cate Blanchett’s razor-sharp performance in Blue Jasmine), what we see is the fractured life of a very human woman — flawed but possessing her own limited power, fueled and yet bounded by her sex.
At the center of the play is Nora, a beautiful housewife struggling with a secret to which even her husband of nine years, Torvald, isn’t privy. When an old friend, Kristine, arrives and asks for Nora’s help securing a job at the bank where Torvald is manager, her readily-filled request sets off a chain reaction that ends in catastrophe (this is about as much of the plot as I can give away without revealing critical spoilers for the uninitiated).
For those like myself who were familiar with Ibsen’s play without having encountered the text in its entirety, this production provides a fluid, straightforward representation. Carrie Cracknell’s direction, fluidly staged on Ian MacNeil’s rotating (yet simple) apartment set, manages to achieve an almost filmic quality at moments, as when the stage turns to reveal successive domestic portraits of Nora’s life, yet it feels utterly rooted in the text of the play rather than grasping at some wild new interpretation.
Ibsen’s writing here is some of his strongest, and Simon Stephens’s translation maintains a slow-burning intensity that soars in the production’s final scenes, when Nora is brought to her famed breaking point. Though many of us know how Nora’s plight ends, there’s an element of surprise maintained throughout, thanks in great part to a valiant cast. To succeed in putting across a play with such a cracking ending requires a herculean skill for an actor: forgetting (essentially), during the early part of a performance, how the thing will end so that an audience truly feels surprised. Morahan especially, but also Dominic Rowan as Torvald and several others, achieve this feat seemingly without effort.
Much is made here as well of parents and children, perhaps the most prominent theme throughout the play. Nora was herself walking in her father’s footsteps (he’d been involved in a scandal of his own that wrecked his career) when Torvald snatched her up and made her a respectable woman. Since then, however, her own childhood nanny Anna (whose own child played second fiddle to Nora) has been even more of a mother to Nora’s children than she has. With her hands free, Nora hasn’t made much of herself. Instead, she has herself been subverted by her husband’s possessiveness. “In a way,” he goes so far as to say, “it’s a little bit like you’re my wife and you’ve also now become my child.”
Birdlike and fragile, Nora has in a way cast herself in this role. But by the play’s end, her complacency has been put to the test. Like the best thrillers, Morahan and the rest of the cast of this incarnation of A Doll’s House manages to hook an audience within the first five minutes of the evening’s duration and never lets go. Good luck breaking free of their grip though — I’d bet the bank that you won’t want to.