Writer: Lucas Hnath
Director: James Macdonald
Lucas Hnath has set himself quite a challenge, writing a sequel to Ibsen’s famously forward-thinking play about female agency and the detrimental effect of marital role-playing. Audiences will bring all kinds of expectations not just about what happened to the characters in the intervening years but also about the writing style, themes and whatever new ending Hnath proposes. Staged at the Donmar Warehouse, A Doll’s House, Part 2 may both exceed and confound those expectations.
15 years after she walked away from her husband and children, Nora Helmer returns to the family home, but what has prompted this sudden return and what are her intentions. A Helmer no longer, Nora has a problem to solve but in doing so is forced to encounter the lives she left behind and the new ones she created, although she also has plenty to say to the household in return.
Hnath’s 95-minute play is staged largely as a series of duologues set against a ticking clock that signals a change of conversational partners as well as the time limit Nora is up against. A Doll’s House, Part 2 retains Nora’s centrality to her own story, pitting her twice against her estranged husband Torvald, twice with embittered housekeeper Anne Marie and pivotally with now grown-up daughter Emmy. That none of these people are as pleased to see Nora or are as impressed with her life as she is, is the key to Hnath’s version of these characters who contemplate the Ibsen-esque dilemma of social ruin or living without truth.
And some of it works well. Nora’s life in the past 15 years is credibly sketched while the developments in her character from skittering child play-acting for effect to towering self-possession are convincingly achieved. And as more than one character agrees with Torvald that they “don’t recognise her” with even Nora admitting “I’m a very different person,” Hnath also seeks to explain the changes by emphasising the role Nora was forced to play in her marriage – an entirely justifiable interpretation of Ibsen’s original.
But Hnath is a far less subtle dramatist that Ibsen and while the latter’s characters were ahead of their time, they never needed to say so. Ibsen wove their discomfort and despair into the context and psychology of their tale, making the containment of their lives palpable. Hnath, however, too often makes his characters a mouthpiece for exposition or polemical tirades on the limitations and benefits of marriage. There’s nothing to disagree with here but in wanting to cut to the chase, Hnath sacrifices the feeling of dialogue spontaneously emerging from the moment, painting the character’s interior lives in bolder colours than Ibsen ever needed to, that honesty somehow making them less rounded.
In a pseudo-nineteenth-century setting, there is also a strange feel to the language at times, a contemporary twang to the vocabulary that strikes a duff note. Characters swear at each other several times, but in ways that feel affected rather than a true reflection of their emotional state which, on Rae Smith’s minimalist red stage and in Poppy Hall’s deliberately historic costumes, seem at odds with the way these creations speak, as though this play was written with a contemporary design in mind.
Noma Dumezweni is calm, rational and has an unshakeable certainty about who she is, a self-knowledge that even the bruising encounters with her family barely undermine. There is little in this performance that connects Nora to any version of Ibsen’s heroine which gives the actor freedom to invent her completely, but Dumezweni allows her character to be stubborn, even dislikeable in moments especially in expressing little emotional connection to or interest in the children she left behind while never yielding to pressure to take the easy way out.
June Watson’s Anne Marie may well have been the protagonist of this drama, a commanding performance from Watson filled with bitterness and even contempt for her former mistress that refuses to be cowed by Nora’s high-minded philosophies. Brían F. O’Byrne gives Torvald considerable dignity, reacting to the unexpected arrival of his wife and revealing greater depths as the play unfolds while Patricia Allison’s assured Emmy is exactly the woman Nora could never be, certain to keep her sense of self even when married.
Hnath’s play has a tendency to tell rather than show while its source material did the opposite but on the whole A Doll’s House, Part 2 is a convincing and, at times, a compelling expansion of this world.
Runs until 6 August 2022