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FringeReview UK 2020

Low Down

Directed by Elizabeth Freestone, designed by John Piper, lit by Lee Curran, with Sound Design and Composition by Michael John McCarthy. E J Boyle is Movement and Kev McCurdy Fight Director.


‘A woman walks into her home, it’s warm and welcoming….’ Three women all called Nora pronounce this after a buttonholing monologue from the first, Anna Russell-Martin. They repeat this and other phrases over two hours, become their own chorus, echoing each other and themselves. They’re all in burgundy but the dress styles evoke different epochs.

There’s several multiple timelines about recently, the most powerful still Alice Birch’s superb 2017 Anatomy of a Suicide. There’s two based on A Doll’s House. Samuel Adamson’s Wife, set in 1959, 1989, 2019 and 2042 traces a DNA of desire and gender fluidity. It’s oblique to Ibsen’s original.

Stef Smith’s Nora: A Doll’s House – revived from its Glasgow Citizens premiere last year – trifurcates Ibsen’s iconic door-slam at crucial moments: 1918, and the granting of the vote for women over 30; 1968, with the pill first becoming widespread and abortion legal; and 2018 just as #MeToo takes its toll of monsters. By staying close to Ibsen Smith interrogates Nora Helmer’s options at three key later moments.

Directed with a fleet sinewy clarity by Elizabeth Freestone, Nora’s designed by John Piper as a living room square, suggesting each period in its beige sparseness with anonymous mid-century chairs and patriarchal padded one. This winter-insulated cube with its white and dark doorframes is a cage-edged doll’s house. Reality’s a chill glass-frosted, lit by Lee Curran with a bluish December lapping outside. Sound design and composition by Michael John McCarthy discreetly nips the in-period needle, though there’s just a blast of 1918. In E J Boyle’s movement invokes a slow ballet of incident, as the three women actors slide from one Nora to another Christine, Nora’s friend. Kev McCurdy’s the fight director for brief shocking moments.

In these almost synchronous timelines, fluidly narrated there’s chorus and solo. The women switch roles, the men’s roles are more static inflected by period. Luke Norris’ banker husband Thomas Helmer, of all actors the one who has to shift vocally over 100 years: from RP patriarch to pioneering credit card technocrat, to blokey credit worker. His is the most demanding male performance and he manages to make you blink and realize it’s the same actor.

Mark Arends’ edgy desperate blackmailer Nathan Krogstad shifts gear though his haunted desperation is similar in any period. Arends has a way of standing half-invisible, transparent with hunger yet lowering. Daniel, Zephryn Taitte’s firm friend but secret admirer of Nora, owns another secret about his health, disclosed just to her. It lightens him somehow, invests him with the most dignity and sympathy, echoing the original Dr Rank but more interesting.

It’s the dynamics between the three women that make this so absorbing and smart a take on what’s open to each. 1918 Nora (Nora 3), in Amaka Okafor’s dignified resonant performance is an early feminist almost writing her cross in blood as she votes, someone almost independent already despite having the most patriarchal adamant in Norris’ 1918 avatar to contend with. Her 1968 Christine (Christine 2) – one who fights for Nora and sues her previous hidden relationship with Nathan as bargaining tool – is invested with a similar clarity. And there’s a revelation, in her relationship with Natalie Klamar’s 1968 pill-popping Nora contrasts with a paradoxically shrunken sense of self, medicalised, managed and in awe of Norris’ pioneering work in credit cards. Klamar’s admissions and passions despite this are the most fascinating and radical, her options perhaps brighter. Her voicing of Christine 1 is more muted, but it’s here that Russell-Martin’s agency somehow takes over.

Russell-Martin the one actor from the original production inhabits 2018’s Nora 1 with a skirling hard-drinking evasiveness but at the same time sense of self only shrouded by alcohol and guilt. Here the couple’s relationship owns a dimension with possibilities. Norris still deploys Ibsen’s superbly cringe-worthy ‘songbird’ motif, his reduction of Nora to wife and mother – something that’s strained in 2018. Like all the resolutions Smith essays for her Noras, this one takes us beyond the door-slam to what’s really possible on a winter night. Each from gaunt lyricism through revelations through new starts will surprise.

The sovereign Russell-Martin and Okafar particularly impress, but each actor brings qualities to hammer truth – Klamar and Norris in their constraints, Arends and Taitte in their hunch and time-liberated warmth respectively.

Smith’s brilliant riff on Ibsen’s original is revelatory, clever in creating simultaneous possibilities and patriarchal pressures at key points over 100 years. It’s not always as linear a you’d think. It’s the kind of homage which succeeds in being a completely different play, originally structured – and faithfully following Ibsen’s main characters and plotline. Superbly wrought and performed.