A Doll's House

A Doll’s House
by Henrik Ibsen
from The Young Vic, London
At The Brooklyn Academy of Music
Directed by Carrie Cracknell

February 2014

There’s no play more iconic the Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. It wasn’t the first modern drama, but it announced modern drama with unprecedented volume and insistence. It confronted Europe with theater as revolutionary. If Ibsen had written nothing but Doll’s House, his position theatrical paterfamilias (aka “The Father of Modern Drama”) would still be assured.

Doll’s House concerns a monumental simp – Nora –  to whom her husband, Torvald, condescends to an epic degree. What he doesn’t know is that years earlier she forged her father’s signature to get a loan that would help him (he doesn’t even know about the loan). She’s been paying it back through scrimping and saving on her own allowance. Today the lender shows up to blackmail her. She believes that when her husband learns what’s happened he’ll take responsibility for it – but instead he floods her with abuse and shame.

Fortunately, it all works out in just a moment; through a plot device, the blackmailer reconsiders and Nora’s husband loves her again. Everything would be fine except that Nora is p-r-e-t-t-y resentful. To the shock of her husband – and all of Europe – she walks out. Just packs up her suitcase and slams the door behind her (Nora’s slamming the door is the great iconic moment, a basic in every student’s drama class).

The script is not without its problems. It’s unabashedly melodramatic and it dwells on the core emotional moment. Ibsen knew that he had to address his audience in language they understood. He had not yet begun to write without melodramatic devices.

Leading lady Hattie Morahan gives us a Nora in a frenzy, so nervous that she startles at every prod. She’s always emotionally grounded, but she’s in a constant state of hysteria. She gets her first case of the jitters in the second scene and her nerves never calm for the duration of the play.

It’s understandable that Nora would be tense – to say the least – but saturating the role with jumpiness drowns the character’s subtlety and complexity. In her final dialogue with Torvald, after that enormous plot hinge, she has no transition. She’s already hit ten-out-of-ten in hysteria and she merely goes to eleven instead of changing direction. I was expecting that Nora would have a sort of epiphany and find calm when she’s lost her illusions. But Ms. Morahan is wedded to that one face of Nora.

The rest of the cast does marvelous work. As Torvald, Dominic Rowan has what must be the most demanding ten-minute transition in drama, and he pulls it off, through sheer commitment to the character, as well as can be done.

Carrie Cracknell, director, keeps everything sharp and polished, emotionally solid and with pulsing rhythm. But in that moment emotional peak – Nora does the tarantella for Torvald – she inserts a sound like a freight train to underline her desperation. It’s intrusive.

There were moments when the audience laughed at lines that are melodramatic or too obvious – not because they’re delivered badly but because audiences have moved beyond melodrama. Is there anything too be done about this? And is it even a bad thing?

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