Nora: A Doll’s House at the Young Vic review ****

Nora: A Doll’s House

Young Vic Theatre, 10th February 2020

It is not difficult to see why theatre-makers, and audiences, continue to be drawn to drawn to Ibsen’s masterpiece, now over 140 years old. First and foremost, there is the still extraordinarily powerful message. Just think what old Henrik would have written if he had actually set out to write a feminist manifesto and not used the real-life experience of a family friend. Then there are the complex fully rounded characters, not just Nora herself, but Helmer, Rank, Kristine, Krogstad and Anne Marie, a mixture of good, bad and indifferent, shaped by, and shaping, the society they are immersed in. Of course, our sympathies are drawn towards the women’s predicaments, with indignation reserved for the patriarchal men and the way they treat those women, but, as ever with Ibsen, there is plenty of grey to ponder in between the black and white. Then there is the plot. Enough twists, believable disclosure, that ending, getting close enough to melodrama to please even the casual theatrical punter but offering enough pleasure to those who seek repeated viewings.

And then there is its seemingly infinite elasticity. We may have moved on from the stifling morality of late C19 Norwegian society and the “exclusively male society, with laws made by men and with prosecutors and judges who assess feminine conduct from a masculine standpoint” that HI observed, but his skill and intention in framing a more universal message of personal freedom and self-expression is, if anything, even more relevant in our world today. As last year’s queer reworking of the play, in Samuel Adamson’s Wife at the Kiln Theatre, demonstrated. (He has previous with reinterpretation of the play, though with psychology rather than gender, in his 2003 adaptation at the Southwark Playhouse).

I am still most drawn to those interpretations which stick closely to Ibsen’s structure, plot and characters though am always up for an interpretation that shifts time, place and/or look. The best of the recent crop was Tanika Gupta’s resetting to colonial India at the Lyric Hammersmith, recently streamed for one day only. Going further back I gather the 2009 Donmar production from Zinnie Harris was a bit of a damp squib despite a stellar cast, (Anderson G, just seen on the NT/YV stream as a peerless Blanche Dubois, Stephens T, Lesser A, Fitzgerald T and Eccleston C). I would certainly have liked to have seen Thomas Ostermeier’s hand grenade reworking based on what he did with Hedda Gabler just shown on the Schaubuhne Berlin streamfest.

Mind you, from the sound of it, the Royal Exchange outing from 2013 sounds like it would have been my glass of akevitt, with Greg Hersov in the director’s chair using Bryony Lavery’s reliable adaptation and with Cush Jumbo as Nora. (I do so hope we will get to see her Hamlet at the YV though I am not holding my breath – oops quite literally as I write this they have had to can it pro tem). Completing the history lesson Nora’s last visit to the Young Vic itself was in 2012 I believe with Hattie Monahan courtesy of Carrie Cracknell which I will watch one day soon on a streaming service near me.

And so to Nora: A Doll’s Hose. This re-think, from Stef Smith (Human Animals, Royal Court), by way of Glasgow Citizen’s Theatre, offered more than enough to chew on. As you probably already know , this comment coming a full 2 months and change after the production closed, (just a week or so early as the curtains came down everywhere), her big idea is to offer us three different Noras: from 1918, the year women finally git the vote, 1968, the “Sexual revolution” and the introduction of the pill, and 2018, the dawn of MeToo., against a backdrop of austerity Britain Though with one actor, Luke Norris, as husband, in a quick-change, of character as well as costume, masterclass.

We gain in Nora dimensionality, as social and, notably, economic context and mundane duty, especially childcare, are fitted to period. 1918 Nora (Amaka Okafor), is patronised, yet remains dignified, in her care of war-damaged Thomas 1, 1968 Nora (Natalie Klamar) is a bundle of nerves, popping pills, bullied by Thomas 2 and 2018 Nora (Anna Russell-Martin), weighed down by debt and childcare seeks solace in drink, Thomas 3 being abusive and bugger all use. Stef Smith cleverly finds ways to keep the broad brush strokes of HI’s plot visible and the choreography of Elizabeth Freestone’s direction, (and especially EJ Boyle’s movement), through Tom Piper’s skeletal set, signifying door and not much more, beefed up with Lee Curran’s lighting and Michael John McCarthy’s sound/composition, as we zip back and forth in time, is remarkable.

However with Mark Arends tripling up as xx Nathan, Zephryn Tattie as xxx Daniel and the three Nora leads also interchanging as her mate, and, in the swinging sixties lover, Christine, it can, even with excellent performances all round (wrong to have favourites, but most impressively, Anna Russell-Martin) it does get a bit breathless with, er, breadth supplanting depth of character. No question it works as innovative theatre making and it conveys its feminist message smartly with rhythm in words and actions, bar a rather maladroit coda. We, the SO, BUD and KCK, could have done with a pie and a pint to discuss further in what, it transpired was our last pre-lockdown outing. But it could have done with drilling down further, and more finely, into the detail of the thoughts it provoked. Maybe in a more focussed, original, contemporary, play with just a faint echo to the Ibsen that Stef Smith so plainly, and rightly, is inspired by.

That’ll be it for Nora this year I think. The Tourist’s annual outing to Amsterdam and the ITA to see Robert Icke’s Children of Nora was a casualty of our times, though the Jamie Lloyd production based on Frank McGuinness’s adaptation and starring Hollywood royalty Jessica Chastain is still planned for July. We’ll see.

Julie at the National Theatre review ***

Julie

National Theatre Lyttleton, 9th June 2018

I am not sure if I like Strindberg’s play Miss Julie. The programme notes for this adaptation of the story by Polly Stenham explicitly deals with Strindberg’s rampant misogyny and class hatred. Whilst setting, plot and, to a certain extent, the bare bones of the text, afford plenty of scope for interpretation, at its heart this is an ugly story of a spoilt rich girl who gets legged over by a scheming manipulative uppity servant. She pays the ultimate price. In that respect it is no different from maybe 90% of operas ever written and a whole bunch of classic novels. Woman as victim.

Yet ….. There is normally always something to draw you in to the moral maze here whether the story, as so often, is transposed, as here, or played straight, in the Swedish midsummer of the late C19. Mr Strindberg, despite his rather brutal thinking, standard male fare in that age I suppose, was sharp enough to offer up multiple, and often conflicting, motives for his three characters, including Kristine, the household cook and Jean’s apparent intended, in his desire to define the “naturalistic” in drama. And apparently hating all your characters, and most of what they stand for, does inject buckets of passion into themes and dialogue. So it is no wonder that later dramatists keep returning to the work.

Polly Stenham (see above) is (in)famous for writing three plays about troubled posh kids, her debut written at just 19, That Face, followed by Tusk and No Quarter, then a shift in direction to her take of post colonial guilt in Hotel, and, most recently, the screenplay for Neon Demon. I haven’t seen any of them since they sounded like they, were primed to wind me up. She is posh, was brought up by her rich Dad, opened a gallery and lives in Highgate. You can see why she might want to take on Miss Julie. But some critics love her and director Jeremy Herrrin is a big advocate. So I figured, abandon your prejudice and see for yourself.

Well I have to say that her adaptation both works, and doesn’t work, but overall there is enough here to warrant a viewing. Ms Stenham not unreasonably relocates the action to present day London, specifically Hampstead Heath borders. Julie is having a party for her 33rd birthday. Businessman Dad is absent. Mum’s dead. Her sycophantic, fair weather friends, and Julie herself, are ingesting industrial quantities of drugs and booze. Downstairs in a vast state of the art, Wigmore Street showroom style kitchen, Kristina is tidying up and preparing food for the party.-goers. Julie pops in, looking for and getting, attention from Kristina, and, when he arrives, from Jean, who is the chauffeur waiting for Dad to call from the airport/meeting. Kristina and Jean are black, Julie is white and plainly “out of control”. The dichotomy between Jean, who sees this job as a step on the way to making it big, and Kristina, who is studying law, and the aimless, hedonistic Julie is well observed, and made more pointed through the prism of colour. I was reminded a little of Jamie Lloyd’s production of Genet’s The Maids which similarly drew attention to the uncomfortable way in which the very rich attempt to alleviate their own pain and loneliness by demanding friendship from their “servants” by pretending there is no economic gulf, or transactional relationship, between them.

Tom Scutt’s set divides the luxury downstairs kitchen from the upstairs, equally tasteful, party rooms, and allows for an ensemble to show off their dancing skills against the backdrop of some thumping bass. It doesn’t hide the fact though that this is a drama of intimacy which is lost on the broad Lyttleton stage, especially when, post festivities, Jean and Julie get it on, in full-on expressive, writhing, mime fashion. It is all a bit silly, as was the unfortunate end of the caged bird here, Strindberg’s booming metaphor. Polly Sternham, wisely given the setting, has booted out many of the other crass metaphors, and also understandably downplayed Kristina’s religiosity.

Still the biggest problem for the production is in the transition from the shag to the aftermath of the shag. Easy to understand why Julie would want Jean and why Jean would want Julie. But, in this contemporary setting, it is more difficult to understand why they would go through all the fighting, metaphorical chest-beating, soul-searching and future-plotting that follows the consummation. Surely this Julie wouldn’t really give a f*ck after the f*ck, as it were, even if she could remember it. The whole fall from social grace thing doesn’t really stack up. And Jean’s “I’ve always fancied you from afar when I watched you in the garden”/”this is my economic stepping stone to escape” also rings a little hollow. The gap between them is vast, of course, in so many ways, but the shift from desire to “love/hate, I can’t live with or without you” is just too awkward. The psychological and societal do not collide in the way they should.

Even so …….. once you swallow this, or better still, if you know, and accept, that this is the base material on to which Ms Stenham has grafted her take, then the sight of Eric Kofi Abrefa’s Jean and, especially, Vanessa Kirby’s Julie, alternately tearing each other apart and then building each other up again, is undeniably captivating. Thalissa Teixeira, who is a magnetic stage presence to rival young Kirby (sooooo good in Robert Icke’s brilliant Vanya), shifts from supportive friend and partner to woman wronged with immense conviction. There is, in all three performances, a strong whiff of the Greek tragedy, not in the material, but in the heightened emotion, augmented by our groovy chorus. In Strindberg’s C19 world the suppressed emotions uncoil slowly. Here they are filling the stage from the off. And the end is suitably in-your-face – no final glimpse of a razor and curtain fall here. Shame. A hotel run by the three of them might have garnered some prize TripAdvisor reviews.

The text might have been a little less colourless, and a little more subtle in places, though I can see this might have jarred with the setting, but in the end, especially in the second half, (this breezes through in just over 80 minutes), I actually quite enjoyed this. Which, given I probably don’t like the play, even if some productions really work (Yael Farber’s Mies Julie being the lodestar crackling, as it did, with apartheid history), and that I wasn’t sure about the central relationship, suggests Ms Sternham and director Carrie Cracknell were on to something. It certainly feels like the audiences, based on the night I went, and the near packed-out houses, agree even if the critics were less forgiving.

I believe Ms Sternham is coming up to her 32nd birthday. Maybe just a quiet night in to celebrate I think..