A dark and heavy house fills the stage. Just before the action begins, the house is lifted up and away. It feels like a cleansing of sorts. A declaration of intent. A Doll’s House, Part 2, will be free of baggage. No fussy set or precious little plot. Just four characters and a lot of conversation. It won’t be easy (American writer Lucas Hnath’s inventive plays rarely are). But it will certainly be different.
Just one part of the house remains: the door. This is the door Nora walked out of at the end of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. Now 15 years on, with an ominous boom, Nora is asking to be let back in. She is rich and a successful writer. Greatly changed and, until a recent setback, utterly in control. But has the world changed with her?
With the stage in the round and the audience partly illuminated, director James Macdonald and designer Rae Smith have created a space that feels like a cross between a courtroom and a boxing ring. At the centre is Noma Dumezweni’s compelling Nora, who wears a grand velvet dress yet radiates a very modern sort of energy. As Nora confronts her past, she argues her case with lawyer-like precision and control. It’s only the hands that give her away, clenched behind her back and itching for a fight.
June Watson captivates as housekeeper Anne Marie, who seems to admire Nora for leaving yet also longs for her return. Arguing for the sanctity of marriage, Nora’s daughter Emmy (Patricia Allison) is somehow as progressive as she is regressive and, in a finely balanced performance, Brían F O’Byrne’s Torvald is achingly sympathetic one moment, old-fashioned tyrant the next.
But there is something a little too controlled about Hnath’s play, as if the characters are being held up for careful study but never quite let off their leash. It’s only in the closing scenes that things begin to feel freer and more reachable. Nora talks with a low, humming intensity about how long it took to find her voice and, in a moment of perfect vulnerability, she is completely herself – and a little bit of all of us.
• At Donmar Warehouse, London, until 6 August.