Spoiler alert! (I’ve always wanted to write that!)
Warning – do not go and see this if a) if you are going through or have just gone through or are even considering a break-up b) if you are feeling remotely emotionally rickety.
Milly and I had the spectacular good fortune to see A Doll’s House last night at the Young Vic Theatre and were treated an epic evening of the finest theatre. It is a whirlwind beginning with the stage revolving at speed while Nora (Hattie Monahan) sweeps in, laughing her way into her small but perfect home laden with Christmas gifts. We watch as Nora sneakily scoffs chocolates like a naughty little girl behind her husband’s back. Then she alternates between childlike wheedling and turning on the sex appeal to squeeze a few extra Kroners out of her hubby.
This opening scene tells of a complicated symbiotic relationship between Torvald and Nora, he, repeatedly belittling his “little hamster” one minute then idolizing her the next, whilst she gladly plays the submissive wifey, agreeing to dress up and sing for him, revelling in the almost suffocating attention. This is the status quo in the Helmer household and sickly sweet and unequal as it is, this kind of relationship is utterly recognisable (albeit infuriating) to a modern audience: how many of us have seen our girlfriends (or ourselves) regress to giggling idiots to please a certain kind of man?
Into this cloying nest comes an old school friend of Nora’s, Kristine (Susannah Wise), recently widowed and looking for a job. In the face of Kristine’s misfortune and subsequent self-reliance, Nora seems ever more childish, vain and spoilt. She is wildly jittery and overwrought, all wide-eyes and fluttering hands. You feel like walloping her as she manages to hijack every conversation and displays the sensitivity of Stalin in the face of her friends’ suffering. Later she confesses to having borrowed a huge sum of money without her husband’s consent to pay for a year away in Italy in the early days of their relationship.
This secret forms the crux of the play, and is partly responsible for Nora’s anxiety which worsens when the disgraced loan shark who leant her the cash, Krogstad (Nick Fletcher) turns up. He threatens to expose her to her husband both as a liar (she had said her father leant her the money) and guilty of forgery (she copied his signature- silly girl) unless she intervenes on his behalf. Krogstad is played with reptilian coolness by Fletcher, a man driven to seek justice and to work his way up in society after making a similar mistake to Nora’s many years before.
The pressure mounts on Nora as she wracks her brain to resolve the mess she has made and relieve the guilt that she feels living under the shadow this secret. After a particularly self-righteous diatribe by Torvald about how “lies in the family home disease the place”, Nora is literally left reeling, and so are we as the stage spins and spins, like Nora’s mind. It’s then that she falls into the arms of the Helmans’ best friend, the ailing Dr Rank, who also loves her and whom, to her credit, she refuses to take advantage of in her distress. As the lights go down in the fist half, we watch Nora dancing the Tarantella to distract her husband and numb herself- “ You’re dancing as though your life depends upon it” he tells her, and the whole world of the play seems to shudder with her as she dances and the lights flicker to darkness.
Watching a show this good comes with it’s risks, one is the extreme tension with which you are left as you are dispatched into the foyer for the interval, dying for a swift slug of white wine and a deep drag of nicotine. This seems tame compared to the almost catatonic shock that you feel at the end of the play, when Nora, eyes finally opened to the emptiness of her previous existence and relationship, severs her nine year marriage to Torvald and sets off into the night and a future unknown. This scene, coming as it does just as things appear to have resolved themselves is one of the most brutal of break-ups I’ve ever witnessed onstage or off. It is almost unbearable to watch as Nora, tells her husband that he is a stranger to her – she sounds as though she is choking on the words, gulping at the air around her, her pain palpable. As she declares “You must never write to me. You must send me nothing…” you can almost hear her saying “No email, no texts, nothing”, such is the relevance and universality of the moment. And you almost feel sorry for Torvald too, a man so out of his depth in the face of his wife’s resolve that you can feel nothing but pity for him, despite his atrocious treatment of his wife only minutes earlier. Every feminist feeling in the room reaches out to Nora in support and it seems impossible that Ibsen never meant for this play to have a feminist message.
It also offers fantastic highs, some in the most unexpected places, not least when a live, plump baby arrives onstage mid-show has every woman in the place uncontrollably “aahing” and clucking! Yolanda Kettle is perfection as the Helmer’s long suffering maid Helene, tasked with heaving around Christmas Trees and averting her eyes tactfully in the face of some serious PDAs! Above all the bold and brave performances given by Monahan and Rowan and Carrie Cracknell’s superb direction highlight the tragedy as well as the humour. They leave an audience shaken but grateful for having seen Simon Stephens’ wonderful version of A Doll’s House.
Continues until 4th August, book here.
Written by a Thoroughly Modern Miss, Justine Thyme.