Ibsen’s A Doll’s House has been given a number of airings of late, most recently at the Young Vic, in Carrie Cracknell’s acclaimed production featuring an award-winning performance by Hattie Morahan as Nora; now it’s the turn of Cush Jumbo to play one of Ibsen’s most famous roles.
It’s not difficult to understand the continuing attraction of Ibsen’s play of domestic upheaval and female empowerment; the ending might be far less shocking to a modern moment but the play’s relevance remains undulled. A fresh and accessible new version of the text by Bryony Lavery helps it feel even more a play of today.
As Nora, the superb Cush Jumbo gives a performance of rare power and poise. This is Jumbo’s third appearance at the Royal Exchange, following her brilliant stints in Pygmalion and As You Like It, and she links up again here with director Greg Hersov. They clearly work well together, as Jumbo is magnificent. At the start she plays Nora as a cheerful, slightly scatty young wife; it’s compelling to watch her transform as her life begins to fall apart.
Whether it’s Nora’s blunt questioning about the state of her friend Mrs Linde’s marriage, her blithe reaction to Dr Rank’s declaration of love or, most memorably, her frantic, farcical Tarantella dance, it’s impossible to take your eyes off Jumbo. Yet this is a less showy, more subtle performance than that might suggest, with her every facial expression and slight tic contributing to Nora’s gradual transformation.
Perhaps inevitably the supporting cast are slightly overshadowed by her performance. David Sturzaker is fittingly pompous as Nora’s husband Torvald and Kelly Hotten (another As You Like It alumni) is superb as Nora’s childhood friend Mrs Linde. Jamie De Courcey also tugs on the heartstrings as the family doctor Rank, who is so poignantly in love with Nora and willing to help her, even though he’s in the final, dying stages of syphilis.
Hersov’s Royal Exchange As You Like It was memorably raucous, but he takes the opposite approach here. This is an austere, at times almost static production, the in-the-round performance space made to feel increasingly claustrophobic as Nora’s impending doom seems to envelop her.
In Hersov and Jumbo’s hands, the final scene is utterly gripping as Torvald slowly realises the consequences of his misogyny, while Nora eventually sets herself free from her cage. That famous final slamming of the door still possesses an intense power, as does the play itself, over 130 years after it was written.