Carrie Cracknell puts Ibsen’s far-sighted 1879 exploration of the fault lines in a bourgeois marriage on as literal a stage recreation of a human dolls house as this realist classic will allow.
Hattie Morahan (Nora) and Dominic Rowan (Torvald) in A Doll's House at the Young Vic, London Photo: Tristram Kenton
In Ian MacNeil’s designs, the Helmer apartment is bright, smart, and daintily assembled. An oasis from the dead of winter it comes replete with Christmas trees and ribbons. It is also perched on a revolve so scenes of domestic bustle are occasionally played out like a dumb show, the scenes of domestic activity acted out as if by figurines or (if you prefer) playthings.
This is just one of many smart and deft touches in a stunning production which thankfully eschews the recent vogue for updating and fiddling with Ibsen (like the 2009 Donmar Warehouse production which made the rather bold mistake of setting it in 1909 London - there have also been all-female productions and even one set in the 1960s). Simon Stephens’ new version manages to be lively and faithful to what was at the time a shockingly bold vision of feminist selfhood and rediscovery.
Any production is of course carried by its Nora and the dazzlingly versatile Hattie Morahan rises triumphantly to the task. She is utterly magnetic, childlike in her telling of little lies, lively, witty, warm and sparkly. She is also amusing, but the laughs run deeper, reminding us that this play walks a knife-edge of different registers. Even in her most tragic moments Morahan teases out the potential for laughs and even farcical absurdity. Not that her Nora isn’t pitiable as she deals with the private prison her secrets and lies are creating for her before she realises that her real jailer is her husband. The rousing closing scenes show Morahan sealing her night triumphantly with the sheer bitter force of Nora’s anger, as a chilling clear-sightedness dawns.
As her husband Torvald, Dominic Rowan maintains the illusion of cheerful upright affability right up to when the spell is broken and his profound limitations are laid bare. There is excellent support, as well, from Nick Fletcher who allows us to feel the pain behind the vengeful bitterness of the blackmailing Nils Krogstad, the disgraced banker determined to bring Nora down. As Krogstad’s estranged lover - and a source of potential redemption in this play - Nora’s friend Kristine, (Wise) gives a beautifully restrained performance.
I was also quietly impressed with Steve Toussaint’s Doctor Rank, the syphilitic family friend with the secret passion for Nora who brings to the physically wracked physician a calm dignity and power. The production also benefits from composer Stuart Earl’s music which somehow manages to elicit liveliness and a sense of doom.
But it is Morahan’s performance which lingers longest in the memory. It is hard to think of such a young actress taking on the part with more skill, maturity and panache and I wouldn’t bet against her picking up a hatful of awards for this.