It’s an engrossing continuation of one of theatre’s most powerful plays. In the conclusion to Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, Nora Helmer decides to leave her children and patriarchal husband Torvald to forge a new life for herself. Lucas Hnath’s part two, which has its UK premiere with a cast led by Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’s Noma Dumezwini, sees Nora return 15 years later – a move which is just as impactful as her decision to walk out the door all those years prior.
She’s back because a judge is threatening to expose her as the pseudonymous writer of feminist novels which are encouraging other females to leave their husbands. Such a threat is made worse by the revelation that a still broken Torvald (Brian F. O’Byrne) hasn’t divorced Nora after all this time – not a good look for her.
Nevertheless, she remains resolute like she was on that fateful day. Dumezwini portrays her as firm, fierce and forensic, and it’s captivating. Rarely standing unless required, Nora sees the occupants of her former home with fresh eyes, and is diagnostic in her dialogue. Dumezwini and June Watson’s Anne Marie – a far more open and unfiltered individual in comparison to Nora – effortlessly and hilariously riff off each other and the contrast in their characters.
O’Byrne’s Torvald, meanwhile, is as ‘broken’ as he was on that fateful day, but he doesn’t want to admit that or engage with the feelings associated with it, because concession requires change to which the patriarch is so averse. We see this in the play’s most thought-provoking and overarching point made by Nora: that marriage forms a contract to love someone based on a particular projection at a certain point in time, with Torvald failing to understand or accept that people inevitably change from that perception. It’s a conservative view which shines a new light on just why Nora felt so suffocated in the house all those years ago, and demonstrates Hnath’s remarkable grasp of the source material.
The Donmar tells us we don’t need to have seen the original to engage with Part 2, and while Hnath’s version offers fresh ideas which stand alone in their own right, applying these ideologies about marriage, patriarchy and feminism to Ibsen’s first half as well only compounds the intrigue, answers many “what if’s”, and allows for a comparison between then and now between the characters on stage. Equally, several Easter eggs also go unnoticed without a basic understanding from the audience of what came before.
Stylistically, director James Macdonald does well to let the dialogue breathe. Domestic designer Rae Smith is not restrained in creating a set which is limited to a table and some chairs. Azusa Ono’s overhead lighting only adds to Nora’s methodical approach to her dilemma, and the ticking noise sounding between scene changes indicates something explosive is coming, but there is no action in most of the 90 minutes running time. It instead lies in Hnath’s rich dialogue, so calmly performed by the quartet.
And Nora is not free from scrutiny herself, either. Those familiar with the scandal around Ibsen’s staging of A Doll’s House will know the playwright had to rewrite a conclusion in which Nora sees her children and breaks down, opting to stay instead of leaving. While this second half runs on the initial ending of her having left the house, we still see her interact with one of her children – Patricia Allison’s Emmy – in an emotional encounter. With the giddy wit of youth, Nora’s views are placed under the spotlight by her offspring, the fear that history will repeat itself in Emmy is haunting.
The impact and usefulness of separation as a learning tool was a brief idea in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House – a footnote, one might say – but in this astonishing Donmar production it forces itself onto the stage, commanding our attention. Much like its predecessor, it leaves questions unanswered as Nora considers her options, but the decision to continue her story with this play is undisputed.
A Doll’s House, Part 2 is now playing at the Donmar Warehouse until 6 August. Audio described, captioned and British Sign Language (BSL) interpreted performances take place on 16, 25 and 29 July respectively.
Production Images: Marc Brenner.