'A Doll's House, Part 2' review — Ibsen meets Rocky in this blistering postmodern drama

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

It was the door slam heard round the world. In 1879, Henrik Ibsen scandalised society with his climax to A Doll’s House, which saw Nora Helmer leaving her husband and young children – and rejecting conventional marriage. But what happens next? Is Nora truly free, and at what cost? That’s the tantalising premise of Lucas Hnath’s playful, provocative and richly intelligent A Doll’s House, Part 2.

We’re back at that door again, this time with Nora knocking and demanding re-entry. It’s 15 years later, and she has made a fulfilling new life for herself, but a shocking discovery – that husband Torvald never filed their divorce papers as promised, making her subsequent activities illegal – has necessitated this reluctant trip home.

Hnath’s straight-through, 100-minute play, which garnered eight Tony Award nominations for its acclaimed 2017 Broadway production, could easily be a dry-as-dust intellectual exercise. But it’s absolutely not. Cleverly structured as a series of duels, with brief pauses for breath in between, it’s like watching several rounds of a boxing match, particularly in James Macdonald’s gripping in-the-round staging.

And though it initially feels like Nora will have the upper hand – with the audience’s sympathies, at least – Hnath gives everyone here a fair fight. Torvald, though wilfully obstructionist, makes a compelling point. After Nora had her great epiphany, did she never think to stay and see if they could both strive for that better marriage, one based on truth and mutual respect? Isn’t fleeing the more cowardly act?

Nora then meets her match with her engaged daughter Emmy, who isn’t remotely perturbed by her mother’s reappearance and is certain in her own views on marriage. It’s rather like watching different waves of feminism clashing. If Nora really wanted to empower women to choose, then she must respect Emmy’s decision – even if she disagrees with it. Yet Emmy’s strength is in part due to her unconventional upbringing in Nora’s absence, as is her desire for domestic bliss.

Even elderly servant Anne Marie gets in some good jabs. Put out by Nora trying to manipulate her, and barely acknowledging that she has raised Nora’s children while claiming female solidarity, Anne Marie reminds her that class is a significant factor too. Nora’s money and position gave her choices. The penniless Anne Marie, in contrast, was forced to look after someone else’s children at the expense of her own.

Hnath makes the inspired decision to keep the actors in period dress but make the dialogue contemporary. That means easily accessible speech, pithy phrasing, and occasional, very funny swearing from Anne Marie. The whole show plays with time: how these characters have changed – or not – in 15 years, their growing sense of mortality, and the distance – or not – between them and us.

In some ways, it’s almost shocking how little has changed. Yes, laws have been reformed (in the 19th century, it’s significantly harder for a woman to get a divorce than a man; a handy programme timeline charts revisions to divorce law over the years). But we hardly have utopian gender equality, nor has marriage died out, as Nora speculates. And a woman prioritising her career or self-actualisation over her children is still judged far more harshly than a man doing the same.

Hnath also has some postmodern fun with the crafting of narratives. Nora has since written her life as a novel, and it’s that subjective framing which spurs Torvald into action: he wants to be the hero of his story, not her villain. The play is in conversation with Ibsen (familiar tropes like forged documents and blackmail, though the plotting is hazier here), and with us as an audience. Many people assumed Nora had died in penury. But do we want to see her unequivocably triumph instead? And if so, what does that say about us?

This meaty text is an absolute treat for the cast. Noma Dumezweni is a powerhouse Nora: an impressive survivor who has earned her dignity and autonomy, but who can also be selfish, condescending, even cruel. Yet being home leads to vulnerable moments of regression, especially as she confronts some unresolved feelings for Torvald.

Brian F O’Byrne’s Torvald is like a block of ice, a man who built up his defences when Nora left and has never found a way to lower them. He’s pitiable, folding his arms in childlike petulance, but we see glimpses too of Ibsen’s Torvald – the man who gaslights and talks down to his wife, whose blinkered views made it impossible for Nora to stay.

As Emmy, Patricia Allison is effectively unruffled, meeting her mother on an intellectual level instead of an emotional one. And June Watson nearly steals the whole thing as a hilariously dismayed, foul-mouthed Anne Marie.

I’m not sure Rae Smith’s shell of a doll’s house, which is whisked up into the ceiling at the beginning, is necessary, but the resulting set – just four chairs, strategically deployed by the quartet – works brilliantly. Macdonald ensures that the physical powerplay mirrors the verbal fireworks. There’s also great use of lighting (Azusa Ono) and sound (Max Pappenheim) in those gaps between sparring matches, with a bold red wash and all-important ticking clock.

If not quite as earth-shattering as the original, Hnath’s play still asks big, existential questions. Can you really evolve over a lifetime while remaining tied to another person? Or can you be happy alone, if it means you find your own voice? This blistering drama is just the beginning: the conversation will run and run. Ibsen would surely approve.

A Doll's House, Part 2 is at the Donmar Warehouse to 6 August.

Photo credit: Patricia Allison and Noma Dumezweni in A Doll's House, Part 2 (Photo by Marc Brenner)

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