Christine: There’s always a choice.
Nathan: No there isn’t.
Three women stand in three doorways, poised on the threshold. Behind them, a part-exploded wall exposes a desolate expanse of blue – a frozen lake where the children play. It is as if the foundations of the family home have already been undermined before the play has even begun. The women step through the doorways into 1918 – 1968 – 2018.
Stef Smith’s ‘radical’ adaptation of A Doll’s House triplicates Nora, situating her story in three years that are significant in women’s history. 1918 Nora has just cast her vote. 1968 Nora hears about the contraceptive pill, abortions and the legalisation of homosexuality. In 2018, Nora’s husband complains about the effects of #MeToo. While a chronological approach might suggest that the position of women has improved over the last century, the play shows that it is not as simple as that. Its simultaneous structure questions such teleological narratives of history.
In many ways Smith and director Elizabeth Freestone offer a Brechtian take on Ibsen’s play. The three Noras are grounded in their historical and material circumstances. Key scenes from A Doll’s House are refracted through those contexts, often with one era taking central focus. Together, Natalie Klamar, Amaka Okafor, Anna Russell-Martin’s performances bring out different sides of Nora’s character. Okafor gives the 1918 Nora a quiet dignity, while Klamar captures a fluttering quality to her pill-popping Nora. In the contemporary storyline – which is the most engaging for its gritty depiction of a woman trying to survive under austerity – Russell-Martin plays Nora as careworn but tenacious. The scenes are distanced by choric sections, in which the Noras comment lyrically on their situations in the third person.
The moments when the three time periods collide are some of the most dynamic of the production. Klamar, Okafor, Russell-Martin, who all play both Nora and her friend Christine, dextrously weave in and out of roles. In several scenes, Luke Norris, who plays husband to each of the Noras, swaps between accents and postures each line. EJ Boyle’s supple movement direction gives a graceful fluidity to these role changes. In one scene, the Noras drape themselves sinuously over her friend Daniel, considering but then disdaining to use her sexual power to save her marriage. When Nora confronts her husband, Klamar, Okafor and Russell-Martin move and speak in unison, their co-presence a gesture of strength.
Tom Piper’s set provides a flexible playing space, free from the material trappings of naturalism, with only a few chairs downstage. However, this means that the material has to be conveyed through the language, which can sometimes make the writing seem heavy handed when establishing historical developments. The contrast between the realism of the adapted scenes and the intervening lyrical passages is interestingly jarring and allows for more exploration of Nora’s psyche.
Smith’s adaptation insightfully draws attention to the financial pressures that underscore Ibsen’s play, something that can be overlooked in modern adaptations that focus on Nora’s explosive departure. Nora borrowed money/ applied for a credit card/ took out a payday loan in her father’s name to keep her family afloat when her husband Thomas couldn’t work. She’s a fraud – literally, and in the role of ‘angel in the home’ her husband encourages her to perform. Smith shows that capitalism is to blame as much as patriarchy. Nathan, the man Thomas sacks when he takes up his new job as bank manager, comes across as far more sympathetic than Ibsen’s villainous Krogstad. Losing his job will leave him and his two children destitute. He protests that he is only doing what he has to do to protect his family – the same justification Nora gives for committing fraud.
In all three eras, Nora’s lack of financial independence as a stay-at-home mother precipitates the decision that leads to the unravelling of her life as she knew it. In the 1960s, Christine tells Nora that having a job gives her ‘options’, and both women celebrate the arrival of credit cards for the potential independence they offer. But, as the Noras conclude at the end of the play, ‘maybe there was never any choice’. Capitalism presents people with the fiction of choice, when their actions are circumscribed by material circumstances. This point is slightly belaboured by the metatheatrical turn at the end of the play, in which the three Noras step out of character to demonstrate cross-era solidarity. They offer an interesting proposition to consider: do austerity and funding cuts mean that a 2018 Nora is in a materially worse position than her historical sisters? But the subtlety of the ideas that have gone before is sacrificed to hammer the point home.
Nora: A Doll’s House is on at the Young Vic till 22nd March. More info here.