michalwasilewski
11th March 2022

Review: Nora: A Doll’s House

Managing Editor Michal Wasilewski reviews Nora: A Doll’s House at the Royal Exchange Theatre
Review: Nora: A Doll’s House

Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House is a classic one of a kind. Written in 1879, it has firmly withstood the test of time, becoming a staple of an honest representation of a woman’s life. It has undergone countless adaptations and reinventions, to this day remaining one of the world’s most renowned plays.

Another attempt at adapting the classic tale comes from award-winning writer Stef Smith and director Bryony Shanahan, who modernise the story by giving it contemporary notions through the introduction of three Noras.

Each of the three Noras faces analogous adversities, each of them is a middle-aged wife and a mother of three, each of them feels constrained by her husband’s patriarchal expectations. The only difference, they live in different times. The 1918 Nora struggles as the world is slowly coming out of the war; the 1968 Nora faces the changing world, where technological and societal advances make traditions less relevant; the 2018 Nora, always looking for a drink to get her through the day, sees how her husband fails at achieving the masculine archetype promoted by the world of social media.

A Doll's House
Photo: Helen Murray.

By the never-ending parallels between the three time periods, A Doll’s House emphasises how the political and societal changes might merely be illusions of change. In 1918, women were given the right to vote. In 1968, the contraceptive pill had been invented and abortion had just become legal. In 2018, the world has already opened up, or at least so it seems. Yet, all three Noras are equally dissatisfied with what the world has to offer them.

The changes in the environment, no matter how revolutionary, don’t bring changes in all individuals. Despite the clear differences between the times each of them lives in, the 1918 and the 2018 Nora both feel as if their sole purpose is being a wife and a mother, without any sense of identity.

Nora’s dissatisfaction with the mundanity and purposelessness of her life permeates the household, consistently increasing tensions. The inevitable escalation happens when one of Nora’s husband’s employees, facing dismissal, uncovers Nora’s past and begins to threaten her family. The past comes back during an already difficult time, forcing Nora to meander through secrets, lies, and understatements in order to save her family.

A Doll's House
Photo: Helen Murray.

Although Ibsen’s A Doll’s House was scandalous at the time of its release due to questioning the traditional family dynamics, the Norwegian playwright claimed the play had been written “without any conscious thought” of feminist “propaganda”. 

His goal was simply to achieve an accurate “description of humanity”, an approach that becomes clearer when looking into the figure of Nora’s husband. He is by no means a tyrant or aggressor; he cares for her to the point that patriarchal society would expect a husband to care for his wife. Yet, for Nora, this is not enough. He fails to recognise her real needs and desires, not of spite or hate, but rather of simple masculine ignorance.

A Doll's House
Photo: Helen Murray.

In one of the play’s most powerful speeches, Nora expresses sorrow over how she doesn’t know the world further than the end of the street she lives on. How, bound by her maternal and marital responsibilities, she has never felt freedom. The power of the monologue was one of a battle cry, a roar symbolising the fight Nora had to undertake to break out of the social constraints.

The uncompromising and empowering nature of Nora’s story is undeniable, yet, to my surprise, not everyone in the audience seemed to agree with the message. Just as Ibsen wrote his masterpiece without “any conscious thought” of feminism, the audience at the Royal Exchange’s press night seemed to watch it without any conscious thought at all. 

Laughing at the most inappropriate moments as if making fun of the feminine struggles, their ignorance highlighted the long way ahead of the society to get rid of sexism; if even those men who are interested in art and culture, nay, those who write about art and culture, prove themselves to be as narrow-minded as the patriarchs of the play created over a century ago.

Nora: A Doll’s House plays at the Royal Exchange Theatre from 4th March until 2nd April.

Michal Wasilewski

Michal Wasilewski

Managing Editor of Culture for The Mancunion.

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