The Theatreguide.London Review
Young Vic Theatre Summer 2012; Spring 2013; Duke of York's Theatre Autumn 2013
What we have here is a truly great play and a director who could not resist the impulse to 'improve' it and wound up getting in its way far more often than she helped things.
Because it is a great play, it survives, but you repeatedly have to look past the production to find it.
Henrik Ibsen's 1879 drama is a milestone in the new realism the theatre was discovering as the Twentieth Century approached, and also a key event in the history of feminism and gender awareness. Its heroine is a typical wife and mother, trained by her culture to be decorative and nothing more, who realises that she is something more and that she must break with her culture, and her husband, to find out what that is.
The play ends with one of the most famous offstage sound effects in all of world drama, a slamming door.
There are many virtues to this production. Until she is badly misdirected in a late scene, Hattie Morahan captures Nora's childlike moodiness, enthusiasm and flightiness while still hinting at something of more solidity below that surface.
Dominic Rowan shows her husband to be the ultra-conventional sexist that Ibsen wrote without making him totally wooden – in one of the director's better interpolations he is given a drunk scene after a party that goes a long way toward softening and humanising him.
Susannah Wise as Nora's confidante, Steve Toussaint as a family friend and Nick Fletcher as the villain all provide solid support, Fletcher in particular avoiding the snivelling or moustachio-twirling that role has tempted other actors into.
But then we get to the production's lily-gilding, of which just a few examples will suffice.
The play as written, and as adapted by Simon Stephens, takes place in the sitting room of the Helmers' flat, but designer Ian MacNeil has built the entire apartment of several rooms and put it on a revolve, so the characters are constantly moving from one room to another with no apparent motive beyond making use of the set, while the repeated spinning of the turntable becomes a designer showing off his cleverness rather than any service to the text.
(One example of how the moving about actually fights the play: Ibsen and Stephens wrote the climactic moment at which Nora explains to her husband why she's leaving him to be played with them sitting at a table, the clear intention being an almost businesslike formality. Director Cracknell moves them into the bedroom, completely changing the tone of the scene.)
The essence of that final scene lies in Nora's calm, the product of her suddenly seeing things clearly for the first time and finding in herself the strength to act on them. But Cracknell has Hattie Morahan play the scene in floods of tears and near-hysterical screaming.
She can, no doubt, argue that this should be a highly emotional moment, but the effect is to trivialise Nora's strength and courage, playing it like the sort of thing that goes on every few minutes in a soap opera.
Oh, and remember that famous sound effect, which comes a few seconds after Nora walks out? Evidently not trusting the moment that has thrilled audiences for over 100 years, Carrie Cracknell felt the need to underline it – and almost drown it out – with a mounting swell of movie music.
Despite the good things in this production, almost all in the performances, and despite the play's own inherent power, which can't be completely muffled, it is overzealous and misguided 'improvements' like those that will dominate your experience and memory of the evening.
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