Review: A Doll’s House

There is an apt, echoing emptiness to the rooms of this Doll’s House. In the Young Vic’s new production of Ibsen’s domestic masterpiece, the superficial marital home of Nora and Torvald is built on a revolve, with Ian MacNeil’s exquisite set boxing the characters in between glass-filled frames as the ground beneath them shifts. Everything is suitably beautiful yet impersonal, evoking a swan-like aura of surface calm while the currents of change churn below.

A similar tension between surface poise and inner turmoil seeps through the whole of director Carrie Cracknell’s delicately constructed production, which seems almost to be holding its breath. As Nora, Hattie Morahan’s voice rings – albeit sometimes a little shrilly – with hollow yet beguiling emotion, underscored with the lightest tinge of desperation. There is an equal, barely perceptible layer of strain to Dominic Rowan’s impressive performance as Torvald, affecting an occasionally forced if amiable enough charm that gradually tips into the unsavoury as he seeks to control his wife.

For all that it seems rested on an emotional knife’s edge, there is an unexpected flavour of humour to Simon Stephens’ new translation. Laughter infects Nora and Torvald’s early game playing, a natural extension of the claustrophobically false and childish atmosphere of their marriage, but also crops up at surprising and troubling moments. In one of the bolder moves of an essentially safe if beautifully executed production, Stephens and Cracknell seem to be gently prodding at the idea that we still might be amused by a husband patronising his wife and the implications of such an uncomfortable idea.

The intrinsic theatricality of Ibsen’s play is also teased out in this version, in which performance and gaze are central. Morahan’s Nora is repeatedly watched by the men on stage, for whom she is always putting on a performance, be it cooing girlishly for Torvald or frantically dancing the tarantella under a twitching spotlight. For both husband and wife, there is something uncomfortably performative about the state of marriage. This effect is heightened by MacNeil’s slowly turning set, freezing beautiful but ephemeral snapshots of family life as the rooms glide past.

The female protagonist, meanwhile, cannot get away from her own reflection. Moving from initial vacuous, mirror-gazing vanity, Morahan’s image begins to fragment through reflections in the inescapable panes of glass, until finally Nora sees herself and her life for what they truly are. This troubled journey towards self-knowledge is distilled in a captivating central performance by Morahan. As a woman on the brink of crisis, she is by turns flirtatious and agitated, a humming conductor of restless energy that is forcefully channelled into deception before finally exploding with devastating impact.

Cracknell’s emotionally taut production is full of moments that hang in the air, briefly raising the possibility of a different outcome before snagging on the present and crashing back down. Early on there is a held breath of silence between Nora and Torvald, a rare meeting of eyes that hints at the potential for a meeting of minds; in the final scene, a similar moment of suspension between husband and wife follows Nora’s assertion that she is leaving, Morahan’s eyes wide as she visibly digests the words that have escaped her lips. When the possibility of reconciliation has fluttered away and those words have been allowed to shatter the pretty fiction of the family home, Ibsen’s denouement is more forceful than ever.

A Doll’s House will be running at the Young Vic until 29 July. More information can be found on its website.

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