Dominic Rowan and Hattie Morahan in A Doll's House.
Every now and then you see a performance that utterly engages your attention, one that draws you into the story and makes you unaware of everything else—the people sitting around you and the passing time.
This is what happened to me last month when I saw a production of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House at BAM. In this often produced play from 1879, Nora Helmer (Hattie Morahan) is a middle-class wife and mother whose husband, Torvald (Dominic Rowan), is due for a promotion at his bank. On the surface things appear to be going well but unbeknownst to him, the wife who he treats like a child has a secret: a few years before when Torvald was ill, Nora borrowed money from a shady source (Nick Fletcher), forging a signature in the process, in order to take the family south for Torvald to recover. Now her fear of being found out is about to come true when the money lender tries to blackmail her. The result is the unveiling of truths and a realization for Nora about who she is and her place in the world.
I had seen many productions of the play before and was actually a little reluctant to see another. But I had heard good things about this production directed by Carrie Cracknell, which had originated in London at the Young Vic. And so off I went.
When Hattie Morahan first appeared on the stage, flitting around the room with Christmas presents and greedily gobbling up chocolates from a bag, I immediately leaned forward in my chair. And so I stayed for the remainder of the play, enthralled by an absolutely mesmerizing performance.
Throughout the play Morahan’s Nora is constantly changing. First there is Morahan's wonderful voice that goes from being high pitched and almost sing-song like to full-on throaty and flirty to downright steely. Then there is her appearance: one minute she appears to be a dainty and helpless little girl, the next she is a sultry grown woman, forever adapting her persona to suite the situation she's in.
She also has a way of taking command of a scene by her mere presence. Whether she is front and center, spinning around the floor dancing the tarantella, or sitting quietly on a bed exchanging stories with Kristine Linde (Caroline Martin), the focus is always on her.
A superb set by Ian McNeil, which allows the Helmer house to rotate 360 degrees, is used by Morahan to her advantage. She flies about the house from room to room, playfully chasing her children or hiding from her husband; she is the symbolic bird caught in a cage. As the play progresses, her flight becomes more frantic, giving the impression of someone spinning out of control.
In the final act of the play the truth about the loan is revealed, and Torvald explodes, accusing Nora of the cruelest things and swearing that she will never see her children again. When the blackmailer returns the note and the threat of exposure is gone, Torvald is ready to forgive and forget, reckoning that Nora, a silly woman, couldn’t have know any better. But Nora is a different woman from the one we met at the beginning of the play and announces that she is leaving him and the children so she can find out who she is. The bird is flying the coop.
Morahan is absolutely electric in this scene. Finally calm and level-headed, Nora coolly tells Torvald that she has been just a doll for him to play with and that she has never had a chance to think for herself, to have her own opinions. She goes on to say that she doesn’t love him and that she realized that night, when he didn’t defend her, that he wasn’t the man she thought he was. With each pronouncement, you see Nora growing stronger, more confident in her actions while Torvald is stunned and confused. When Morahan turns to leave, her back ramrod straight, you know that Nora will somehow survive.
While the other members of the cast did a fine job in their roles, especially Dominic Rowan who was brilliant as Torvald, the play belongs to Morahan who, without a doubt, has created one of the best Noras in recent memory. I for one can’t wait to see what she does next.
Unfortunately, A Doll’s House has closed but there’s a short film by Carrie Cracknell, Nora, that is a response to the play that you can watch here.
All photos by Johan Persson.