When staging plays from the theatrical canon, contemporary directors are confronted with the question: why should audiences care now? While Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House is undeniably a classic, its relevance always demands redefinition. Although Ibsen claimed the play was humanist rather than feminist in its politics, his protagonist Nora has been touted as a theatrical harbinger of feminism; theater critics have long been denoting the parallels between Nora’s struggles as a wife and mother and those of contemporary women. In the Young Vic’s latest production of Simon Stephens's adaptation of the play, however, A Doll’s House takes on a fresh relevance for audiences at the BAM Harvey Theater. Director Carrie Cracknell resists taking any particular stance on capitalism, gender roles, marriage, or other institutions – but instead focuses on hitting and maintaining a shrill note of anxiety produced by such oppressive institutions. In an economical and political climate that seems more precarious than ever, this mood of institutionalized anxiety is certainly something most of us can relate to right now.
In an endeavor to mimic reality, a traditional box set for a 19th Century piece of realism consisted largely of a drawing room (or kitchen, as in August Strindberg’s Miss Julie), with doors leading to other rooms in the house or to the outside. While intricately decorated, this one-room design emphasized the claustrophobia felt by the characters, who are often entrapped within the oppressive structures of society. For the Young Vic's production, Ian MacNeil’s rotating set defies traditional realism’s claustrophobic designs in favor of a cinematic view of Nora and Torvald’s middle class flat. To watch the characters move inside this dizzying and fascinating carousel is a true marvel to behold. It gives the audience an unfolding panoramic view into the daily lives and private moments of the characters, allowing us to see Nora’s face when she drops the façade – a privilege not afforded by box sets.
Though MacNeil’s set offers a cinematic peek into the characters’ personal spaces, the acting is not cinematic at all. While Hattie Morahan’s bravura performance as Nora certainly stood out as breathtakingly original and honest, Cracknell clearly encouraged the entire cast to be unafraid of bold choices. When eliciting money or favors from Torvald (played compellingly by Dominic Rowan), Morahan’s Nora became as cute, shivery, and saucer-eyed as a baby Disney animal. In a room by herself, however, and left alone to her own inner demons, we can watch Morahan melt into an inner world of anxiety and tension that we begin to understand belies her cuteness.
Audiences of A Doll’s House have come to expect the play’s final note: Ibsen’s famous slamming door. As Nora leaves her home, her family, and the only world she’s ever known, we hear her slam the door behind her. In the Young Vic’s production, Nora does slam her door, but it makes more of a clatter or click than a slam. While possibly disappointing for those of us who want a nice loud slam!, the more subtle departing sound of Morahan’s Nora concludes the production on an ambiguous note. A loud door slam might suggest that Nora is liberated and on to bigger and better things, but Cracknell does not give us this satisfaction. Indeed, Nora steps forward with the same anxiety-ridden-confidence that a college graduate steps forward into today’s precarious job market. It is this raw, situational anxiety that makes Cracknell's production a timely rendition for today.
A Doll's House is playing at the BAM Harvey Theatre (651 Fulton St. in Brooklyn) and has been extended to run through March 23. Performances are Sunday at 3 p.m., Tuesday-Friday at 7:30 p.m., and Saturday at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Tickets start at $25 and can be purchased by calling 718-636-4100 or by visiting bam.org.