A Doll’s House, Part 2 by Lucas Hnath – Donmar Warehouse, London
Lucas Hnath’s play is part of a long tradition of sequels to Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. By walking out on her husband and, more particularly, her children Ibsen’s Nora ignited a furious debate that is, remarkably, still smouldering. From George Bernard Shaw to Stef Smith, writers have been tantalised by the question of what happened to Nora after she closed that door behind her. Hnath’s play is set 15 years after her departure, and to some extent is a gloss on events during the play. It is difficult to find fault with James Macdonald’s production for the Donmar, but the reason this play needed to be written never becomes clear. It doesn’t give us much that we couldn’t already have imagined as possible futures for Nora, and it indulges a tendency to lecture the audience. As a result, Nora becomes a strangely unsympathetic character, and the drama focuses becomes about her insensitivity towards people, and her inability to relate to others. This seems a restrictive gloss on Ibsen, which closes down the character rather than opening her out.
Nevertheless, the staging is very effective. With the Donmar auditorium in a rare in-the-round configuration, designer Rae Smith fills the stage with a house that is dramatically lifted away to reveal the interior of Torvald’s living room, which Nora (Numa Dumezweni) re-enters as the play begins, for the first time since her fateful departure. Dumezweni is commanding and magnetic in the role, although it is difficult to like the Nora Hnath has written for her. Brian F. O’Byrne is exceptional as the aged, embittered Torvald – every inch a man defeated, disappointed and scarred by his wife’s departure. June Watson is glorious as Anne-Marie, Nora’s former nanny who brought up the children Nora left behind. Her accusation that Nora has only returned because she wants something from her rings true, as does her sadness at her inability to make things right in the family she has served all her life. And Patricia Allison as Emmy, Nora’s now adult daughter, is self-possessed and sharp, choosing marriage with her eyes open, to Nora’s horror.
While the production is of a particularly high quality, the experience of watching A Doll’s House, Part 2 is too much like having the original play explained at length. Nothing is left unsaid, and everything is told rather than shown, in contrast to Ibsen’s writing. Nora’s unpacks her feelings and motivations to everyone in turn, like a walking Cliff’s Notes, and in the process renders the character shallower, more selfish and more emotionally obtuse than Ibsen intended. Torvald doesn’t come out the play particularly well either, but if Hnath is fascinated with the possibilities that Nora presents it seems reductive and redundant to create a new version that shows her to be a lesser person than we would hope.