Nora isn’t just a mother and a wife, she is an individual with thoughts, feelings and enough guts to get what she wants.
Illuminating, bold and haunting, Nora: A Doll’s House is a production that made me feel equal parts powerless and rebellious against the binds of the patriarchy.
To understand this production, you first must step back to 1836, when Henrik Ibsen first wrote the script for the now iconic play, A Doll’s House. It was the Victorian era. Women belonged to the domestic sphere and once married, their rights were legally given to their spouse. So, when a play like this entered the stratosphere – a production that explored the intricacies of how a women’s ‘inherited’ roles interacted with her actual identity – you can imagine how A Doll’s House proved disruptive within the middle-class at the time.
Nora is no Miranda Priestly and the film adaptation only just passes the Bechdel Test, so I wouldn’t go as far as saying that Ibsen created a character that truly understood her own wants and needs; even the radical acts that Nora does carry out are all for her husband or children. But the play was interesting when it was released, because it was finally one that made women four-dimensional.
“Despite the century between them, a thread weaves between the trio: each are equally underestimated and each face the consequence when they dare to be bold.”
Nora isn’t just a mother and a wife, she is an individual with thoughts, feelings and enough guts to get what she wants. It’s easy to see why this play has made the UNESCO register for extraordinary archive that holds ‘world significance and outstanding universal value’ on these grounds alone.
But this version of Nora: a Doll’s House, uses three different Nora’s, set in 1918, 1968 and 2018. Each use the original character’s canvas to paint the nuances of each era onto: 1918 Nora’s vice is sneaking herself some rations whilst 2018 Nora swigs her secret alcohol stash.
But despite the century between them, a thread weaves between the trio: each are equally underestimated and each face the consequence when they dare to be bold. For each Nora, like the original play, her husband Torvald goes to work in the financial sector, but does not bring home enough money for the family. Nora, home alone, takes matters into her own hands, working in secret. But it’s not enough – she makes a complicated deal with a devil behind her husband’s back, in order to finally give her family the life she always envisioned. Her husband never suspects because, why would he? To him, Nora is a meek, “silly girl”, property of his, with no innate desires.
“As director Bryony Shanahan puts it, there is an urgency to the script that creates characters that are “spilling their guts and allowing us to see their insides”.”
But things get complicated. Nora’s secret is at risk of getting out, tearing apart the seams of her seemingly perfect life. She gets blackmailed by one of her husband’s employees who knows what she’s done, and there’s seemingly no way out.
A heavyweight on the Manchester theatre scene, Yusra Warsama is dazzling as 2018 (highly Manc) Nora, with Jodie McNee (1918 Nora) and Kirsty Rider (1968 Nora) delivering the delicacy needed to portray each layer of a women’s identity. In the production crew, nine out of 11 members are women; playwright Stef Smith elevates the script to delve into the intricacies of Nora’s motivations. As director Bryony Shanahan puts it, there is an urgency to the script that creates characters that are “spilling their guts and allowing us to see their insides”.
“This iteration of A Doll’s House should be applauded for creating the three Nora’s; a clever device that brings home the impact that having men as gatekeepers has had, and how it has transcended time.”
The Royal Exchange is the perfect venue for the three Nora’s, allowing them to zip on and off stage at ease, letting the actors flit fluidly between Nora and the other characters they are playing.
I would have appreciated seeing more from the stage design. Lots of fun could have been had by incorporating more influence of each era on the stage and a nod to the zeitgeists of the time. But this iteration of A Doll’s House should be applauded for creating the three Nora’s; a clever device that brings home the impact that having men as gatekeepers has had, and how it has transcended time.
No matter the landscape: 1918 post-war, 1968 swinging sixties or 2018 fourth-wave feminism, we are always underestimated, undervalued, and undermined. As Nora puts it “there’s so much about myself and my desires that I don’t understand” which will resonate with most women who feel like they simply can’t cut through the weight hanging on their shoulders. But as this iteration of the play reaches an unexpected thrilling conclusion, it serves as a reminder that once we figure that out what we truly want, it’s not just the house that’s ours, but the world.
Nora: A Doll’s House is on show at the Royal Exchange Theatre until the 2nd April 2022.