Nora: A Doll’s House by Stef Smith based on Henrik Ibsen – Young Vic, London
Henrik Ibsen’s play ‘A Doll’s House’ has one of the most famous endings in theatre, deeply shocking when first staged, as Nora walks out on her husband and children. She leaves only the faintest of hints that marriage, perhaps, has a future. It is typical of Stef Smith’s reimagined version at the Young Vic that this climactic moment is then deflated, with three third party narratives about what happened next. In ‘Nora’ nothing is left to the imagination, everything is signposted and the focus and impact of the source material goes missing along the way. It is the culmination of a frustrating evening that fails to improve on Ibsen’s original either in terms of coherence or dramatic impact.
Smith has written about three version of Nora, each 50 years apart, living in parallel marriages – equally stifling and oppressive – in 1918, 1968 and 2018. The three women replicate the same dilemmas in their three eras suggesting that, although circumstances have changed, the position of women has remained fundamentally the same. This is an interesting thesis, but unfortunately ‘Nora’ does not explore it with sufficient clarity. Instead, there are constant, unsubtle references to social issues of the time – women getting the vote, contraception, legalisation of homosexuality. These give the impression of a checklist, diluting the play’s focus, while variations on the original plot also confuse. Nora (1968) leaves with her friend Christine, after discovering the courage to declare her hidden love, a twist which is parachuted in late on. Nora (2018) has nowhere to go because, as she mentions for the first time during the final 30 seconds of the play, cuts have closed the local shelters.
Nora’s dark secret – the fraudulent loan she has taken out – carries particular weight in Ibsen’s play because women did not then have the right to make their own financial arrangements. This absolutely crucial fact doesn’t make sense in all three of the time periods in ‘Nora’, so the reason for the fraud is lost. The play’s fragmentation has the effect of dissolving its inherent drama, with all three Noras on stage throughout, interchanging arbitrarily, and scenes that constantly flip eras. This leaves husband Thomas particularly exposed as he is required to change character in the middle of key scenes, becoming earlier or later versions of himself. This structure no doubt contributes to a performance style that relies too heavily on people from the past speaking in funny voices. The tension that Ibsen builds so effectively, is scattered to the three winds. On paper, the concept of using ‘A Doll’s House’ to explore women’s experiences in the subsequent century makes sense, but in practice ‘Nora’ does not work. Ibsen’s play is regularly revived because it still packs an unrivalled dramatic punch, and ‘Nora’ only succeeds in showing why intent alone does not make good drama.