A large part of the intrigue and power of Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 play A Doll’s House lies in the fact that we have no idea what happens to Nora after she walks out that front door and slams it behind her.
Nora suddenly realises that she’s been patronised by her husband Torvald for their entire marriage and has no sense of self. We know that things won’t be easy for her — she has almost none of her own possessions, exists in a patriarchal society which she’ll attract the scorn of and won’t be able to see her kids, whom she absolutely loves — but her need to define who she is as a human being outside of her assigned roles as wife and mother trumps all those concerns.
What playwrights Kit Brookman and Anne-Louise Sarks (who is also the director) ask in Nora is: what happens to Nora after she walks out the front door? What now? What are the consequences of a woman making that choice in today’s society?
The first act of the play is a very loose contemporary, abridged, Australian retelling of A Doll’s House. The overarching plot and relationships are the drawn from Ibsen, but the dialogue, plot details and shape of the piece is vastly different. Brookman and Sarks’ work is engrossing and insightful, taking place over a number of short “episodes” at the family residence, leading up to Nora’s (Blazey Best) final decision.
There are small touches of genius in the script, like a scene where Nora throws out all of her daughter’s pink toys and clothing following a harrowing trip to the “girls aisle” in a toy shop. And Nora’s taste for chocolate becomes a taste for Allen’s chocolate freckles. Brookman and Sarks are able to demonstrate the entire dynamic of Nora and Torvald’s (Damien Ryan) relationship in a simple argument over chocolate freckles.
The way Torvald controls Nora’s life is more covert in Brookman and Sarks’ take and, in many ways, more insidious than what Ibsen wrote. But the dynamic which Ibsen created between these two characters slides into today quite comfortably.
Unfortunately, the second act doesn’t quite live up to the promise established in the first. After leaving her family, Nora has been walking for hours across the city at night when she arrives at the house of an old colleague (Helen, played by Linda Cropper, who is really nothing like Ibsen’s Helen), from the company she worked at several years ago. Helen struggles to understand Nora’s decision (and why Nora has shown up on her front door step) to leave her children, and encourages her to return and work through things so that she can fulfil her motherly duties.
It’s where the play asks its biggest questions and through those questions, it becomes abundantly clear that a woman who walks out on her family and children still faces the scorn of society and may still find it near impossible to live. It’s clear that the lives of many woman are still locked up in marriage — for better or worse. For many, there’s no real way out.
But the second act is not the compelling piece of theatre that the first act is. Even though Sarks’ naturalistic direction can occasionally test your patience (Nora, Helen and the entire audience wait for a kettle to boil) it’s never dull, as it’s still intelligent writing with excellent characters. But the problem is that it seems clear for the entire second act that Nora isn’t going to change her mind and we’re not going to find out what her next step is. There’s very little to keep an audience on the edge of their seats when we all expect it’s just going to end with Nora going to bed. The second act feels like an extension tacked on Ibsen’s House to elaborate a few points and explore the issues with greater depth. Even Marg Horwell’s set, which for the first act is an effective maze of white metal frames making up the various rooms of a house, can’t quite live up to the standard it set for itself in the first, with just a couch, a kitchen bench, a fridge and a large white frame making up a single room in Helen’s home. I’m just not sure we needed to follow Nora out the front door to understand the consequences of her decision or her place in society.
Blazey Best holds the piece together with a powerful performance in the title role. Within her Nora is a battle between the woman she is and the child that she’s been treated as — which Sarks explores time and again in her script and direction. And her relationship with her own children is one of the most compelling things about the production. Damien Ryan brings Torvald to life perfectly as a man who is completely oblivious to the way he denigrates his own wife and Linda Cropper is superb as a woman whose life has taken a vastly different course to Nora’s. Nora’s two children John and Emmy were played with a vitality and skill by Toby Challenor and Indiana Gregg on opening night.
Nora is a worthy and valuable theatrical experiment. It’s even a worthy and valuable play, for the most part. But it has a structure working against it and stifling it from achieving its full potential.