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.

Bitter Wheat at the Garrick Theatre review **

Bitter Wheat

Garrick Theatre, 4th July 2019

The last time I saw a David Mamet play it was the very fine revival of Glengarry Glen Ross at the Playhouse with an outstanding cast of Christian Slater, Robert Glenister, Kris Marshall, Stanley Townsend, Don Warrington, Daniel Ryan and Oliver Ryan.

There is no doubt that Mr Mamet can write outstanding drama. But it has been a little while. And, when he has previously opted to lob his showcase incendiaries into the world of sexual politics, it is also true that opinion has been mixed. So we should have been warned. But it’s still David Mamet right? And more importantly it’s none other than Mr Charisma John Malkovich in the lead. as Barney Fein. A not even thinly disguised Harvey Weinstein. So topical huh?

What then is most bloody annoying about this play is not the material, the approach, the over- and under-tones. All this should not have taken us by surprise. It’s just that Mr Mamet doesn’t seem to have been arsed to even try to write a proper drama. Set up the monster lead. And then …. Well f*ck all really as the play goes nowhere in terms of plot, spectacle or message. And DM directed it. So he has no-one else to blame.

Yes there are a few funny lines, (when Barney discovers he is on the MMA board for example), though even some of these are so pointedly “close to the knuckle” that after a while they just come off as Mamet pastiching himself. And yes Mr Malkovich turns in a bravura performance which means it is never “boring” in the sense of clock-watching. But even he, the man who played the Vicomte de Valmont remember, can’t escape the clumsy material which weighs his down as much as the padding under his suit. Unlike Oleanna, there is no attempt at ambiguity here and hence no tension, moral or otherwise.

Go if you must to see the legend Mr Malkovich. Excuse, if you can, the ugly imperative that lies behind Mamet’s provocation. Even start to feel sorry, if you must though God only knows why, for the boringly venal character of Barney Fein as Mamet plainly intends. But surely even the most vocal proponent of “political correctness gone mad” won’t be able to excuse the fact that the dialogue is well, often a bit sh*t, the plot cumulatively tired and the supporting characters , (played by talents such as Doom Mackichan, Alexander Arnold, Teddy Kempner, Matthew Pidgeon and Zephryn Taitte and newcomer Ioanna Kimbook, who battles most valiantly) are pulp, not even cardboard, thin.

The programme cites 16 producers. To premiere this in London (presumably Broadway won’t touch it). Better that a couple of them rustled up a revival of Speed-the-Plow. You know. From back when DM was sharper, smarter and relevant. Mind you. What do I know. Looks like the theatre is being filled even if it requires a little discounting. So maybe they” make money. But I doubt this will make them proud.