Nora: A Doll's House

Stef Smith after Henrik Ibsen
Royal Exchange Theatre
Royal Exchange Theatre

Yusra Warsama (Nora 1), Jodie McNee (Nora 2) & Kirsty Rider (Nora 3) Credit: Helen Murray
William Ash (Thomas) & Yusra Warsama (Nora 1) Credit: Helen Murray
Jodie McNee (Nora 2) & William Ash (Thomas) Credit: Helen Murray
William Ash (Thomas) & Yusra Warsama Credit: Helen Murray
Andrew Sheridan (Nathan) & Yusra Warsama (Nora 1) Credit: Helen Murray
Naeem Hayat (Daniel) & Yusra Warsama (Nora 1) Credit: Helen Murray

Ibsen's play about the woman who walked out on her husband and children (based on a true story of someone he knew) was controversial in 1879—the actress playing Nora in the original German production, Hedwig Niemannraabe, refused to perform the ending unless it was changed so that she came back—but can still provokes gasps from an audience today. But while there are still plenty of issues that need tackling over women's equality in modern society, they're not necessarily the same as those in nineteenth-century Norway on which the play hinges, which makes it a period piece.

Playwright Stef Smith considered what a Nora of the twentieth or twenty-first century might be like, but instead of picking a time in which to set her adaptation has picked three: 1918, when a limited form of female suffrage was legalised; 1968, when 'The Pill' promised sexual freedom for women; and 2018. This requires three Noras—Yusra Warsama, Jodie McNee and Kirsty Rider—with accents suggesting that the bank clerk has slipped down in society from the upper middle class, highly respected man of the town of a hundred years ago. The men are played by the same actors throughout, perhaps suggesting that male attitudes haven't changed much in a century.

While this may seem like a radical overhaul of the play, it is actually still remarkably faithful to—and respectful of—the original. It still opens just before Christmas as an apparently frivolous Nora returns from shopping and secretly indulges in a forbidden vice before her husband returns—rather than macaroons, though, this is sugar in 1918, pills in 1968 and alcohol swigged straight from the bottle in 2018. Husband Thomas (William Ash) is about to be promoted, which will clear their debts, and she asks him to find a job for her friend Christine (they play Christine to one another).

Nora reveals to Christine that when her husband was ill, she did something clever but perhaps not entirely legal to prevent them going under financially; it isn't quite as clear here as in Ibsen just how financially astute she must have been to achieve this and to keep it from Thomas. But widowed bank employee Nathan (Andrew Sheridan), desperately trying to provide for his family, finds out and says he will tell Thomas if she doesn't persuade her husband not to sack him. The remaining character is their friend Daniel (Naeem Hayat), who reveals to her he has a terminal disease, and that he has always loved her.

Ibsen's story famously goes beyond the expected melodramatic happy ending to see Nora walk out at the end. Smith's version goes beyond the door slam (in fact there isn't one) to leave the three Noras addressing the audiences about the work still to do.

The staging is difficult to describe without it sounding complicated (which it must have been to rehearse), but in Bryony Shanahan's slick production it all works very naturally. There may be one Nora talking to one Christine and Thomas one moment, then it will flip so the same Thomas is talking to a different Nora and Christine fifty years later, but it all makes sense as you watch it.

Amanda Stoodley's set is a simple star-shaped revolve that turns at the end of each act to twist red cords attached to the ceiling tighter and tighter. Sound designer Elena Peña adds appropriate sound at certain points, but the cacophonous mixture of musical styles and eras when all three Noras dance at the same time is very effective.

This is a perfect production to see for anyone studying Ibsen or his play, but it's more than just an academic exercise or a feminist polemic. The male characters are flawed but not entirely unsympathetic; while Thomas is certainly pompous and controlling, Nathan is shown as a desperate man clutching at whatever he can find to enable his family to survive.

It's also an enjoyable piece of theatre, whether you know the original or not—and if you do, it shows it in a fresh light without seeking to destroy it.

Reviewer: David Chadderton