Nora: A Doll’s House review – Ibsen in fiddly triplicate

Royal Exchange, Manchester
Stef Smith’s reworking of the incendiary play casts three Noras in different eras, but can’t give them credible life

There is not one disgruntled wife in this high-concept reworking of Henrik Ibsen’s incendiary play but three Noras, situated in different time-frames across a century: 1918, 1968 and 2018. It is a bold idea, slightly reminiscent of The Hours, and it re-plants the drama in symbolic, surreal and non-naturalistic ground, asking what has changed for Nora – and middle-class women like her – since she first slammed the door on her marriage.

The trouble is that the clever concept in Stef Smith’s script bears down heavily in its enactment and the theatrical challenges get in the way of its power. Directed by Bryony Shanahan, the three leads, Kirsty Rider in 1918, Jodie McNee in 1968 and Yusra Warsama in 2018, give committed performances, switching between monologue and dialogue, and also alternating deftly between playing Nora and her friend, Christine, in the bat of an eye.

William Ash and Yusra Warsama in Nora: A Doll’s House at the Royal Exchange, Manchester.
William Ash and Yusra Warsama in Nora: A Doll’s House at the Royal Exchange, Manchester. Photograph: Helen Murray

But there are not enough tonal differences between them, or even enough visual signposts beyond their dresses (Rider is in a gown, McNee in a short skirt and Warsama in contemporary clothes). Neither are there distinct enough cultural references to give them specificity, so they do not come across as women of different eras but as alter egos, of sorts.

The Nora of 1918 speaks about the joy of casting her first vote while her 1968 counterpart discusses abortion, the pill and her equivocal relationship to motherhood. The last of these is particularly interesting as she talks of the sequestering of her body and her disconnected feelings towards her three children (who are always absent) – but it is brisk and under-explored as a theme.

They speak like an ancient Greek chorus at times, chanting in unison, their words reaching towards poetry that is sometimes overwrought. It creates melodrama but brings distance, too, taking the Noras further into the realm of archetype or totem rather than flesh and blood. Amanda Stoodley’s set adds to the sense of symbolic realities, made up of three squares, not quite aligned, with string holding it in place.

The script, with its tricksiness, sounds stilted in the mouths of some actors too, especially the sketchy male parts. Nora’s husband, Thomas (William Ash), is the ultimate archetype, unchanging over the centuries, in the same suit, and both patronising and patrician in his attitude to his wife. This presentation makes the point that men’s power in the home has stayed intact over the past 100 years but it also feels reductive. As a result, Thomas’s character is too flat to appear credible.

Nathan (Andrew Sheridan), as the blackmailing widower, is a much more interesting figure, not demonised but shown as another victim of the system, even if Sheridan channels shouty anger above more textured emotions. The family friend, Daniel (Naeem Hayat), meanwhile, appears like little more than a function of the plot, and his terminal diagnosis does not have a strong enough emotional effect on Nora. Instead it brings about a scene in 2018 in which she allows him to touch her calf, which seems incredibly dated for its sexual coyness. A lesbian kiss between Nora and Christine is under-investigated for its emotional ripples.

There is no slamming door at the end but three different outcomes, which have their power, but just don’t leave us feeling enough.


Arifa Akbar

The GuardianTramp

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