In what seems a somewhat audacious move, Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 classic A Doll’s House has been granted a 21st Century sequel by emerging American playwright Lucas Hnath. But in fact this 90 minute comedic hypothesis of what might have happened to Ibsen’s characters after the end of the original play, is a highly respectful work and is equally reflective of contemporary society, in a figurative sense, as its progenitor was literally.
For the uninitiated, A Doll’s House told the story of Nora Helmer, a woman under-estimated and disparaged by her husband Torvald, whose circumstances are impacted by the societal imbalance of the time that left women powerless to represent themselves. (A quick lesson on late 19th Century marital roles can be found in MTC’s cannily timed other current production An Ideal Husband.) After confronting her husband for his dismissive and child-like treatment of her, and exhausted by his ignorant response, she returns him her keys and wedding ring. Slamming the door as she goes, Nora seemingly leaves her family behind at the play’s stunning conclusion.
Hnath’s story picks up 15 years later as Nora (Marta Dusseldorp) knocks on that same door a changed woman. She has built an independent life for herself and developed a respected career as a writer, encouraging other women to step up and overthrow the shackles of their marriages. But she hasn’t returned to pay a fond visit to her former husband and three now-grown children. Rather her writing career has been caught in a hitch after a judge whose spouse was invigorated by Nora’s works is now threatening to have her publications trashed and livelihood halted. You see Torvald (Greg Stone) never filed their divorce papers, and as a married woman conducting business without her husband’s consent she desperately needs to annul her marriage.
As Nora, Dusseldorp is simply superb. A picture of feminine strength and confidence, no longer a ‘doll’ to be played with, but a forceful woman who’s ready to fight for what she wants. The greatest beauty of Hnath’s script is in its humour and Dusseldorp proves a skilful comic. Nora’s plan to get her children’s nanny, Anne Marie (Deidre Rubenstein) to aid her is quickly nipped in the bud and she struggles with the confrontation of having abandoned her children by the woman who took up the responsibility of their care. Rubenstein is warm and dryly witty as the loyal nursemaid who rejects being put in such an awkward situation.
Hnath has structured his story largely as a series of duologues for Nora. Firstly with Anne-Marie, then with Torvald, followed by a meeting with her now-grown daughter Emmy (Zoe Terakes), and then one final clash with her husband. Despite the potential for this to be a little dull, especially on Tracy Grant Lord’s charmingly sparse Scandinavian-styled set design, director Sarah Goodes creates a dynamic energy that is completely enthralling.
In this age of self-obsession, Hnath has interesting things to say about the desire to lead an liberated life, and through Stone’s unexpectedly endearing performance we understand that perhaps no matter how much we want personal freedom, to be a part of a relationship means each side of the couple giving up some independence.
Of particular interest is the reaction of Nora’s abandoned child Emmy to her return. Thanks to a precocious performance from Terakes, the young woman’s point of view – a more old-fashioned one than Nora’s – is convincingly argued. Emmy’s attitude is reflected in her traditional dress, designs also by Tracy Grant Lord, practically national costume, and together with Anne Marie’s modest Scandinavian house-dress and Nora’s glamorous layered outfit, the colourfully attired cast look like they’ve stepped straight out of Disney’s Frozen. A little kitschy, but charming nonetheless.
There is a potential problem with this play however, which limited the financial success of the critically acclaimed Broadway production, the fact that as a sequel to another play – albeit a classic – if you haven’t seen the original you may have a hesitation to see its successor. The truth is, it’s not necessary to have seen or read Ibsen’s original play to be able to enjoy this story. Simply knowing that Nora left her family some fifteen years before returning in this tale is enough to understand what’s going on and appreciate the new points about marital relationships that Hnath has drawn here. Although it is also true to say that you may have a deeper appreciation of this story if you do know the original quite well.
Either way, this a fascinating, surprisingly modern and delightfully funny new take on an old play with performances you’ll love no matter if you know a little or lot about ‘Part 1’.
Images: Jeff Busby