'A Doll's House' review or 'Hattie brings the house down!'
'A Doll's House', Henrik Ibsen
English language version by Simon Stephens
Written for Culture Wars
It's Christmas time. As the stage revolves, we're shown a montage of festive preparation scenes. Nora Helmer dashes about her house, marvelling at her gifts and stashing them away. This is a woman who clearly loves to shop. This is a woman who instinctively keeps secrets. This is a woman who likes to play with fire, munching gleefully on chocolates as her husband – who has banned such extravagances – sits hunched in small dark room next door.
At first, Hattie Morahan's Nora resembles a kid let loose in a playground. When her old friend, Kristine (a no nonsense Susannah Wise) turns up, Nora sits by her knee, like a young lass with her mother. The two scamper off to Nora's bedroom and loll about on the bed, gossiping like teenagers. You can read the whole of 'A Doll's House' in Morahan's eyes and, at these early stages, they sparkle with mischief. Morahan's Nora is the heroine of her own drama and, as she confesses her huge debt problems to her oldest friend, she seems exhilarated by the ghastly drama of it all.
Yet even at her most naiive, Morahan's Nora is gutsy and determined too. When Kristine accuses her of behaving recklessly, Nora proudly stands her ground: 'People shouldn't underestimate me, Kristine. You shouldn't underestimate me.' Later, when Doctor Rank confesses to Nora that she is dying, she shoulders this burden alone. When he delivers his checked visiting card – a sign his death is imminent – there are few, loaded moments in which only Nora knows the truth. Morahan's Nora does not crumble with this knowledge. In fact, she seems positively emboldened by it.
Indeed, this is a Nora who grows stronger as her dilemma deepens; a Nora of extraordinary hidden reserves and hidden selves. Morahan's voice has the most exceptional range and we're treated to a virtuoso display, as her voice dips and soars at will. One gets the impression that these voices are just the beginning and that there are hundreds more Noras hiding behind that china-white face, waiting to be deployed when the moment is right.
Perhaps inevitably, the remaining characters seem muted. Morahan's performance tumbles right out of her – every giggle thickens up her role – and yet all the other actors hold back. Stephens' script is economical but it is not cold and it is not static – if handled correctly. The confrontation between Kristine and Krogstad (Nick Fletcher) feels stiff and Steve Touissant's Doctor Ranks is so coiled up that his character, even when at his most vulnerable, struggles to wriggle free.
Nora's husband, Torvald Helmer (Dominic Rowan) is excruciatingly self righteous and patronising but he is too far removed from everyone else. The scenes between Torvald and Nora, particularly near the end, never fizz as they should. It feels like Nora is talking to a model of her husband rather than a living, breathing chap.
But it's still a brilliant conclusion. When Nora eventually turns against her husband, it's as if all Morahan's carefully placed character clues are finally strewn about the stage. All those clever little glimpses into Nora's soul, laid down by both Morahan and her director Carrie Cracknell, suddenly shine with incredible force. As Nora determinedly packs her bags we remember all those times we've seen her hunched up in tiny corridors, a prisoner in her home. We remember her peering through the window at her children, as if looking in on someone else's life. In the wrong hands, this final rebellion can feel quite jarring. With Morahan, it makes absolute perfect sense.