Review of Nora: A Doll’s House at Royal Exchange, Manchester.
You wait what seems like forever for an opportunity to see a production of ‘A Doll’s House’, and then three Noras come along at once – all on the same stage.
Stef Smith takes Ibsen’s classic drama, and gives it a time-travelling, hall of mirrors-style update. Three performers embody the play’s heroine, with the narrative scattered across 1938, 1968 and 2018. Each of that trio alternates between the roles of Nora and her friend Christine within those time frames – their voices echoing and layering across the decades.
As a concept it might sound potentially mannered and confusing, however director Bryony Shanahan steers a fluid and clear-sighted production.
For those familiar with Ibsen’s original, there are clever, knowing references within the narratives. Nora’s surreptitious snacking on macaroons, becomes a dip into a bag of rationed sugar, a pill popped, or a sly swig from a small bottle of alcohol. Times change but the urge for “a little rush of rebellion” endures.
So too, do the structures and levers that restrain women’s ambitions. The power of Smith’s adaptation is that it retains the key focus on an impossible situation – a woman trapped within a stifling and controlling marriage – while also tracking the progress of women’s rights across the years. Votes for women and the right to abortion are referenced, as well as the legalisation of homosexuality.
What rings out loud and clear however, is a sense of unfinished business. At every step across those years, each of Smith’s Noras continue to find themselves at both the mercy of men, and the economic system they have constructed and sustained.
Any sense that Nora’s plight is a historic injustice is well and truly extinguished, particularly when her story is played out within a contemporary context. There’s nothing distant about Yusra Warsama’s husband going through her pockets in search of scratch cards, or unfamiliar in her having secretly signed up for a payday loan.
That sense of connection and recognition is also reinforced by the cast’s mix of accents. For whatever reason, hearing those various voices, particularly from Greater Manchester and Merseyside, bound me even more closely to the lives portrayed on stage.
The adaptation highlights the corrosive impacts of capitalism on its characters, including the men. In particular, the motivations of Nora’s blackmailer Nathan (Krogstad) are more explicitly drawn – and Andrew Sheridan smartly mines that, bringing sympathetic depths to the role.
Due to its structure, with no single lead role, this feels very much an ensemble piece – and all six performers skillfully contribute to a thoughtful and cohesive whole.
While well worth seeing for the performances, and the new perspectives it brings, the production’s impact lessens as it progresses. Mainly due to Smith’s script. For all the cleverness of the concept, that three-pronged approach is its downfall. Ibsen’s taut tightrope of a plot is transformed into something more web-like, and snippets of storyline spin outwards, scattering our attention.
Having harnessed itself to the idea of multiple Noras at key points in time, the adaptation lets things slip out of focus. Too often characters feel sketchy, historical context flits past, and even the ending feels underwritten.
This time, the door is not slammed shut. A multi-voiced call to arms conveys a strong sense of solidarity, of future potential, but like much of what has gone before, it fails to rouse or inflame.
Performance seen on 12 March 2022.
Images by Helen Murray