The week in theatre: A Doll’s House, Part 2; Jitney – review

Donmar; Old Vic, London
Lucas Hnath’s sequel to the Ibsen classic is intriguing rather than revelatory; but August Wilson’s taxi-stand drama has developed new flavour with age

Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (1879) ends with a slammed door; A Doll’s House, Part 2 (2017) begins with a knock on the same door. American playwright Lucas Hnath’s continuation imagines Nora, the woman famous for not wanting to be a wife, coming back, 15 years after leaving her husband and children; it asks what she has been up to – and what she might do next.

As Nora, Noma Dumezweni is imposing though sometimes over-deliberate in speech, with phrases clinging together like snowballs. She arrives upholstered in a heavy 1879-style dress not designed to help anyone scythe through the world. She could blend into the furniture of a turn-of-the-century drawing room, but Rae Smith’s design is purposefully bare.

This Doll’s House is a hybrid: it uses 21st-century idiom – “I’m pissed off at you” – while taking off from the conditions of Ibsen’s lifetime, with maids and clerks and very clear guidelines for how to behave as a respectable married female. Nora is anguished because she has thought herself divorced – and is not. The implication throughout the evening is that much has not changed in the last 140-odd years: that marriage can still stifle.

It is stimulating to hear it suggested that being alone may be exhilarating, especially for women; that is rarely said. It is persuasive – and truly feminist – for Hnath to indicate that Mr Nora also might have been exasperated by the cutesy side of his marriage. Yet the most acute argument made against the leaver - that she claimed to want to talk but instead simply had an epiphany and quit - is also the least psychologically penetrating. Marriage dismantled Nora’s powers of discussion: she could not talk; she could only leap; she was created for drama, not for debate.

This is an intriguing, not a transporting play. Patricia Allison is silvery and sharp as Nora’s daughter – independent from her mother but strikingly conventional; June Watson is magnificent as the beaky housekeeper. James Macdonald’s finely focused production pushes home – on the eyes as well as the ears – every twist of the debate. Like spectators at a boxing ring, the audience sit around the action. Smith’s design puts an argument of its own: a heavy miniature house, which sits heavy on the stage before the action begins, lifts to show a place empty of personal history, in which people must confront each other without pretence. Under Azusa Ono’s lighting the stage glows red and fades, as if illuminated by dying embers, past passions.

‘Balletic quality of French farce’: Solomon Israel and Sule Rimi in Jitney at The Old Vic.
‘Balletic quality of French farce’: Solomon Israel and Sule Rimi in Jitney at The Old Vic. Photograph: Manuel Harlan

August Wilson’s American Century Cycle is one of the great projects of modern drama: 10 plays, two of which have been made into films by Denzel Washington, aiming to chart black experience through each decade of the 20th century. It is grand not only in historical reach but in the fluidity with which the playwright can move between documentary and dream, inner and outer lives. Jitney, written in 1979, is one of the most keenly realistic of the dramas.

Set in a cab office (a jitney is an unlicensed taxi) in Pittsburgh, where Wilson grew up, the play jostles with the drivers’ different biographies. A young man has been released from prison after 20 years for killing a white woman who claimed he raped her. A former tailor, who can size up a suit in seconds, struggles with whiskey longings. Sule Rimi, loose-jointed and loose-tongued, is outstanding as a meddlesome gossip, as is Wil Johnson, chief among the drivers, fuelled by sad anger and Leanne Henlon (the only woman on stage), finely warm but wary of her beloved. As always, Wilson does not allow any one character to be there as filler or as cute cameo. No one owns the main thread of the plot, which if anything belongs to Pittsburgh itself: white improvements in the city bearing down on the lives of these characters.

It is a pity that in Tinuke Craig’s intermittently lively and sometimes indistinct production, Alex Lowde’s design is flat. The peculiarly antiseptic office is perched against black-and-white city videos, rather than invaded by destruction. Still, the play’s originality glimmers through. When I first saw it 20 years ago, I thought it moved like jazz. Now, a more bizarre comparison came to me. Punctuated by the constant ringing of the phone, and by the minute-by-minute flinging open and banging shut of the office door, the action, though ferocious, imperilled and urgent, has the intricate timing and the near balletic quality of a French farce. August Wilson never ceases to surprise.

Star ratings (out of five)
A Doll’s House, Part 2


Susannah Clapp

The GuardianTramp

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