Tuesday, March 4, 2014

A Doll's House: The Darkness in the Space In Between

Shifting agonies and a world where everyone appears to be putting on masks to cloak their true feelings, Carrie Cracknell's production of Ibsen's A Doll's House puts great emphasis on the merry-go-round life that little bird Nora is on. Adapted by Simon Stephens, this production from the Young Vic lives up to the hype, bringing energy and intelligence to a modern classic.

Nora Helmer (Hattie Morahan) is wife, mother, and all around flirt who convinces her soon-to-be bank president husband Torvald Helmer (Dominic Rowan) to give a job to an old friend the widowed and penniless Kristine (Caroline Martin). Nora does not realize that Torvald will fire his morally questionable employee Krogstad (Nick Fletcher) who Nora owes an enormous debt to. Krogstad has fallen once before and cannot bear to lose his standing again. He begs Nora to intervene on his behalf or he threatens to reveal her debt and her forgery to her husband. But her machinations only manage to expedite Krogstad's dismissal.  With the sword of Damocles hanging over her head Nora tries to dance as fast as she can for her husband hoping her debt and her forgery will remain secret or better yet if it comes to life, her husband will rescue her as she rescued him when he was ill and needed the money she lied about to get.  But in this play, famous for its shocking ending, Nora discovers more than what is in her husband's heart. She realizes her own autonomy and the patterns of behavior that have brought her from her father's grasp to her husband's, never once questioning who she was in the process.

The themes of nurture over nature seemed to ring loudly in this production.  We inherit so much from our parents that our lives, whether we want them to or not, will be dictated by those that came before us--and in this play that contact is largely that of "contamination." It is hinted at that Nora's father engaged in shady dealings which casts a light on her own crimes. The family friend Doctor Rank suffers from an infirmity inherited from his fathers indiscretions.

Morahan is flighty, flitty, and bird-like. She delivers on the levity that Nora is meant to have, and then she wields a heftier voice and countenance when she has the "first serious discussion" in her nine years of marriage to Torvald.  Morahan touches her own figure so much--as if smoothing away any external wrinkle or crease in the perfect exterior she projects.  But nothing is going right for her and this is all subterfuge.   I heard some audience members complain about her mumbling lines but I took that as a performance choice--where her confidence or bravado loses steam and the "what" she is saying is less important than her muttering and playing along as if all were right.

Despite the frequent references to her childish ways Nora bears the most--the secrets, the sadness, the violations for the sake of her family.  For this delicate exterior masks a resolute fighter inside.  It is Torvald who gives in to his "delicate sensibilities" and when threatened folds quickly.  Reputation and honor are the linchpins to this world. Torvald comes across as an interesting counterpoint to Krogstad.  When Krogstad receives love, after all the morally compromising acts in his life, he abandons his need for respectability because that love is worth more to him. When Torvald is threatened he quickly abandons his love for honor. 


Set designer Ian MacNeil has built a spinning doll's house for Nora. The set rotates as we move from scene to scene and as time passes.  It speeds up as things are falling apart.  Much like the recent production of Machinal at Roundabout made you feel as if the walls were closing in, this production makes you feel as off-kilter as Nora.  The set helps to focus on the public display that is Nora and her life.  But this delicate and precious world is ready to topple over in an instant.  Like Nora's twirling tarantella, the house too has an exterior of brightness and cheer and an interior of shadows.

For some reason the scene that I keep coming back to is when Krogstad and Nora stand in the hallway in the middle of the house.  He taunts her with revealing the truth about her misdeeds and she taunts him with suicide threats.  They unmask each other and this scene is brilliantly staged by Cracknell in this netherworld of the set--not in the public rooms but hidden away in a back hallway, creeping in shadows.  Since the set feels so open and airy, finding this space is a triumph. 

And it turns out they have more in common than either wants to admit--they face each other as survivors.  Fletcher's Krogstad is not an oily, mustachioed villain.  He's very much a flesh and blood man desperate to have a job, a life, and a way to survive in this world.  His line "I control the way he would remember you," was truly chilling but not because it was borne of anger or physical menace but because it is simply the power he has and is willing to use if given no other choice.  Fletcher, as Krogstad, comes across as exhausted, even by his own dealings.  Of all the performances, I fixated on Fletcher's quiet charm and believable destruction.  The sense of loss he expresses when he tells Kristine, "When you left, the earth crumbled away beneath my feet" is shattering. You feel his emptiness in this delivery and that he's come a long way to this place.

In fact, every character and performer seems to manage to deliver on that feeling.  Martin, as Kristine, also gives a world-weariness that feels contemporary but appropriate for the piece.  The supporting characters here felt so crucial to the entire play.  The echoes of universality, as each tried, failed, or succeeded in their personal endeavors, never felt more clear than in this adaptation.  So much is made of Nora and her journey in this play, but this production made the societal aspects of the story clearer and more real. Nora's struggle was not hers alone.  Everyone carried secrets, mistakes, woe, and regret. 

Despite the age of the work, nothing about this adaptation feels too far in the past.  In fact, it all feels a touch too believable to make it comfortable for anyone watching.  A riveting production of a play that continues to provoke.

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