“You’ve lies in the whites of your eyes, Nora. What have you done?”
Playwright Stef Smith re-works Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 play A Doll’s House into a fluid feminist fabric that is laced with Marxist undertones. Nora: A Doll’s House spans an entire century, ultimately reminding us of oppression’s timeless reign.
We are given three different Noras in three different moments: the first is played by Amaka Okafor, who is living in 1918 and has just voted for the first time; the second, played by Natalie Klamar, lives in 1968 and experiences the dual liberations of legalised abortion and the pill; and the third, Anna Russell-Martin, champions the #MeToo movement of 2018. The precise pain of capitalism colliding with sexism powerfully culminates in the modern incarnation of Nora, who is buried beneath the rubble of contemporary austerity.
The play takes a synchronic rather than a diachronic approach to history: the women are separated only by differentiating shades of burgundy, a tweaking of accents, and their choice of intoxication. Sugar, pills and whiskey, respectively. Rather than tracking progression, Nora denies the very concept of societal progress. Nora’s husband Thomas, played by Luke Norris, gets progressively more abusive and less soft as he travels through the century. Stef Smith writes in a very different climate to Ibsen, yet she seems intent upon enshrining Nora’s reticence into her re-write. Time, it appears, refuses to change.
Whilst the three door frames, the three pairs of chairs, and the three hanging squares rigged from the ceiling declare the disparity of time and place, the play skips over any temporal boundaries to interweave these three Noras, who all remain on stage throughout. The structure feels wonderfully female in its movement beyond tight Victorian form. Replicated facial expressions, savvy costume coordination and overlapping voices all afford dimensions of possibility in their intersectionality. Yet the historical boundaries are blurred rather than brandished, meaning the evolution of feminism is not fully explored.
A feeling of stasis pervades the form as well as the dialogue. Aesthetically complete, or forcibly restrained? Just like Nora’s own performative guise of ‘womanhood’ and fear of exploration, the play itself struggles to firmly situate itself within the four corners of the stage. Stage designer Tom Piper creates a neutral space that feels purposefully uninhabited as well as inhibited. Indeed, by splitting Nora into three, her spirit sometimes seems to float away like a dissatisfied cloud, preferring to disintegrate rather than become whole.
Nora’s socially conscious layers of mother and wife are pulled back when Natalie Kalmar, playing the 1968 Nora, makes the once-controversial decision to walk out of motherhood and matrimony. Whilst she pierces through this suffocating film of claustrophobia, the raw human emotion of all three Nora’s acting in unison is a little unconvincing – it’s hard to find a true sense of self when that self is also trying to be a universal and accessible woman, who represents an entire century. Surely Nora is fed up with being everything to everyone by now?
Nora: A Doll’s House is playing the Young Vic until 21 March. For more information and tickets, visit the Young Vic website.