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.

A Day in the Life of Joe Egg at Trafalgar Studios review *****

A Day in the Life of Joe Egg

Trafalgar Studios, 30th November 2019

Not a fan of the Trafalgar Studios which has been asking daft prices for mediocre seating in the last year or so, (though it seems to have eased up a bit now and is nowhere near as egregious as another ATG venue the Playhouse Theatre). So waited this out and finally secured a decent perch at the back (which to be fair is not too much of a problem in this venue, sight-line wise).

Peter Nichols’ most (in)famous play had been on my wish list for a few years. Written in 1967 and first staged at the Citizens Theatre, (also on my theatrical to-do list and mention of which just sparked a 3 hour diversion though the web – focus Tourist focus). The play, which has subsequently been turned into big and small screen versions, tells the story of married couple, stoical Sheila (here played by the marvellous Claire Skinner) and overwought Bri (equally marvellous Toby Stephens) and their daughter Joe, who has cerebral palsy, and is played by less-abled actor Storme Toolis. They are joined by liberal do-gooder Freddie (Clarence Smith), who runs the am-dram group which Sheila has joined, and his heartless younger partner Pam (Lucy Eaton) and then by Bri’s tactless and hidebound mother (effortlessly played by Patricia Hodge).

The caustic play examines the coping mechanisms that Sheila and Bri have created to bolster their failing marriage and to look after Joe, who is confined to a wheelchair and cannot directly communicate. Sheila just gets on with it but Bri is starting to unravel. What makes this such a powerful play is the tone that Peter Nichols adopts; an ironic, almost detached humour with little in the way of sentiment or homily. I can see why some might find Bri in particular, with his black humour and lack of fortitude, a difficult character and might view this approach to disability as somehow inappropriate or capricious. I disagree. The way the couple act and speak is entirely believable and relatable and shows the reality of disability and the love the family needs to stick together.

It is true that in the over 50 years since the play appears attitudes to disability have changed, (though as Storme Toolis observes in the programme less able young people and their families still often struggle to secure the resources they need to improve life quality), and the subject a far less “controversial” source for drama. The private role-play that the couple employ to verbalise and visualise Joe’s emotions and to leaven the routine therefore sounds even more awkward particularly in the hands of Toby Stephens who is, presumably at director Simon Evans’s behest, keen to show up Bri’s desperation and guilt at wishing for Joe’s institutionalisation. The differences between the couples attitudes to Joe, Sheila’s unconditional love compared to Bri’s self pitying are most visible in the direct to audience addresses that Peter Nichols’ uses to reveal their interior thoughts, (about each other and Joe), and to provide back-story.

In the second half, as the views of the other characters on disability, Joe and the couple are gently skewered, the humour becomes more comfortable and the play less raw, though maybe less powerful and humane as a consequence. Whilst the two leads excel the rest of the cast are careful to eschew caricature despite the obvious unease of their characters around Joe, and at the centre of it all is Joe. There is enough drama, and surprise, built into PN’s plot, even if it is unsurprising, and Peter McKintosh’s faithful 1960s room set, out of which Bri and Sheila step, alongside Prema Mehta’s broad lighting and Edward Lewis’s sound, create no serious distractions.

It probably comes as no surprise that Peter Nicholls, with wife Thelma, based the play on their own experience of bringing up disabled daughter, Abigail, who died aged 11. He went on to tackle big issues though the 1970s in other plays, The National Health, Poppy, Passion Play, Blue Murder and Privates on Parade, through formal experimentation (with copious reference, as in ADITLOJE to music hall and vaudeville), and ironic humour. However in 1982 he retired, apparently dissatisfied with the way his work was presented and was seen as unfashionable by many. Yet, based on this and what I have read about these plays, I would think there is an opportunity for contemporary theatre-makers to have a go at revisiting other of his frank, if sometimes unsubtle works, as has been done with Passion Play for example. Prickly and unsettling is not such a bad thing for theatre. PN passed away just before this revival opened but I hope he had a chance to see the justice that was I think done here to his breakthrough play.