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Inside the Doll’s House: experiencing Ibsen at the Young Vic

2013 May 13
by Emma Curry

I recently realized that in my ‘Victorian life’, I have been harbouring a rather shameful secret: in my thesis research, seminar preparation, reading group suggestions, and even leisure-time choices, I am guilty of focusing almost solely on nineteenth-century novels. Thinking back to undergraduate days, it was the same in my Victorian modules then: I would almost always choose to read, talk about, or write on a novel, shunning poetry and plays for what I saw as the comparative ‘safety’ and stodge of continuous prose.  It means I’ve ‘treated’ myself to the thorny perplexities of Martin Chuzzlewit, but never read Hedda Gabler; I can quote at will from The Picture of Dorian Gray, but know very little of Lady Windermere’s Fan.

Having discovered this novel bias, I decided to begin rectifying the problem by revisiting a play that made a great impression on me the first time I encountered it: Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. As well as being guilty of not seeking out enough nineteenth-century drama, I am also always inclined to treat it in a novelly-way when I do, by reading it rather than watching it, and whilst I vividly remember enjoying Ibsen’s work the first time we discussed it in an undergraduate seminar, I only ever encountered it as a text on the page. By a happy coincidence, however, my new resolve to experience A Doll’s House in the theatre perfectly coincided with the revival of the Young Vic’s production from last summer, which was based on a new translation by Simon Stephens, and won two awards for the performance of Hattie Morahan as Nora.

I was a little uncertain at first as to whether the production would work in the modern surroundings of the Young Vic. There are so many grand late-Victorian theatres in central London that I assumed the play would be more ‘authentically’ experienced in one of those: suitably austere surroundings to augment the controversial outcome of the play, which sparked outrage upon its original performance for its supposed representation of an ‘unnatural’ woman who abandons her children. The space at the Young Vic had been chosen for an excellent reason, however: to accommodate a house set up on a revolving stage, which so perfectly communicated the cramped, doll-like nature of Nora’s home that I felt claustrophobic even watching from outside. The door-frames were low, the corridors narrow, the furniture small and characterless; and the constant, dizzying rotation of the set perpetuated Nora’s feeling of being cut off from herself, and trapped in a cycle of ‘play’. This pervasive feeling of ‘inhabiting’ the space of the play meant I found myself utterly absorbed in the unfolding events, and the interval came almost as a surprise: a sudden, 130-year jolt back into the present day.

Whilst the revolving stage is obviously a modern touch, almost everything else in the production is preserved from the original: Simon Stephens’s translation is clean, incisive and utterly faithful to Ibsen, and the costumes and furnishings are authentically Victorian. The famous tarantella scene, in which Nora dances ‘as though [her] life depended on it’ (‘It does,’ she replies),[1] had lost none of its dramatic heft 130 years on, still perfectly encapsulating Nora’s desperate internal struggle, as her wild dancing oscillates between desire and destruction. Similarly, the final exchange between Nora and Torvald (and, of course, that slamming door) was just as powerful, abrupt, and shocking as it was described in contemporary reviews.[2] Even humorous little touches like Nora’s secret stash of sweets remained touching and relevant.

Hattie Morahan and Dominic Rowan in A Doll's House at the Young Vic. Photo by Richard Hubert Smith

The affective power of this preserving emphasis meant that, at the end of the play, I wondered whether Ibsen actually required any ‘updating’ at all. The director of this production, Carrie Cracknall, also produced a short film with writer Nick Payne, which moved Nora (still played by Morahan) to a modern-day setting, as a busy wife, mother and ad executive, struggling to juggle work and home life. It’s a beautifully-shot film, haunting and melancholic, and clearly emphasizes that Nora’s dilemma is just as relevant today. However, whilst I’m usually an advocate of being creative with a text – re-imagining and reworking to throw new and unexpected light on it – in this case, I almost felt that it wasn’t necessary. Experiencing Ibsen’s original on stage almost verbatim, was, I felt, enough to identify the continuing resonance of his ideas; to draw attention to nuances that I hadn’t picked up on just by reading the text; and to make me think about the play in new ways. My theatre companion (a non-Victorianist) agreed: having expected to find the nineteenth-century setting alienating, she instead found herself absorbed to the point where she almost ignored the period details. On the way home we were unable to decide whether this was a quality unique to theatre, to Ibsen, to this particular story, or to none (or all) of the above.

Either way, it was an interesting foray into thinking about late-Victorian theatre, which clearly raised as many thoughts and questions for me as for the first-time reviewers in Copenhagen. The multi-sensory immersion in the text that came from experiencing it on stage has pushed me to think more about my own research on bodies, literature, and the spaces in between, and I’m also determined to continue considering nineteenth-century drama (and poetry) with the same vigour I apply to novels. Now if I can just find someone to help me stage Dickens’s The Village Coquettes

Emma Curry is a PhD student at Birkbeck College, where she is researching Dickens’s representations of bodies, body parts and fashion accessories. You can follow her on Twitter: @EmmaLCurry


[1] Henrik Ibsen, ‘A Doll’s House’ in Four Major Plays, ed. by James McFarlane (Oxford: OUP, 1998),  p. 59.

[2] See here for a selection.

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