FringeReview UK 2022
Directed by James Macdonald with Design by Rae Smith and Lighting by Azusa Ono, Sound Design Max Pappenheim.
Casting Director Anna Cooper CDG, Production Manager Jim Leaver, Costumer Supervisor Poppy Hall, Props Supervisors Chris Marcus and Jonathan Hall for Marcus Hall Props, Hair and Makeup Consultant Keisha Banya, Voice Coach Hazel Holder, CSM Sharon Speirs, DSM Fan O’Donnell, ASM Cheryl Firth
Resident Assistant Director Dadiow Lin, Rehearsal and Production Photography marc Brenner
Till August 6th
In dim light a vast charcoal-black husk pretends it’s a house; though it must have escaped from Into the Woods. Windowless it lifts and Donmar’s unusually in-the-round audience are dazzled with a rough-edged cadmium-red rectangle – not even carpet – and a few late 19th century chairs. Nowhere to hide, it mixes interrogation room with boxing ring.
Like director James Macdonald designer Rae Smith knows Lucas Hnath’s 2017 play A Doll’s House Part 2 glints with bargaining, settling the past, opting ways out. In ninety minutes, there’s only the door.
If that front door’s slamming in 1879 signalled modern theatre like a gunshot, now the person who slammed it knocks hard for readmittance. For a visit at least.
Noma Dumezweni’s contained, almost regal Nora arrives in dark green velvets. It’s about 1893-4, which might be significant. Fifteen years after she left, successful author under a pseudonym, Nora returns. Things have darkened lately, she needs a favour.
Jenny Galloway’s taken over at very short notice from June Watson as housekeeper Anne Marie. Script in hand she barely glances at it, giving a warm, warmly irritated account of a woman who might admire Nora’s actions but tells off the cost, including to herself.
No-one expects Brían F O’Byrne’s Torvald to return early, but he’s forgotten files, and the second tableau sees a man much changed, acting the part of a widower. ‘But I do think he should get a dog’ Anne Marie’s already proclaimed in a richly comic moment. One sees why. This Torvald might seem unbending, uncomprehending, and in part still is, but someone capable of learning, blow by blow, reading a book. And indeed receiving offstage blows later in a decidedly odd encounter.
Nora’s request at first rebuffed, Anne Marie suggests another tack: meeting Nora’s daughter Emmy (Patricia Allison) who has no memory of Nora at all. Nora’s not prepared for this; the most intriguing of inter-generational conflict erupts. ‘I actually think in a lot of ways things turned out better because you weren’t around’, her assured daughter declares at the start. Though prepared to be as law-breaking as Nora to get what she wants too, she’s more like Nora than she admits. Allison plays Emmy like a crisp Shavian heroine, all rational mind if not rational dress. Dumezweni’s Nora – gleaming with an inner power – you feel could give even more than this drama allows.
Emmy has reasons she wants to help Nora, to free herself and not stain a future. Both regressive in Nora’s eyes and decided, quick and adult in her dealings, she might be very like Nora, as her mother notes, but sharply corrective of Nora’s assumptions. About Torvald, about her, even about Nora.
Three characters, three ways out present to Nora; as O’Byrne’s Torvald returns flinching with new recognitions; and the final scene brings reckonings and keener engagement. Because we’ve missed the visceral feel of what’s at stake till now. If because of Hnath’s polemic elegance Dumezweni’s Nora lacks that coil of emotional ferocity – she earlier accuses Torvald of never getting angry – she releases it now. As does O’Byrne in a mutually nuanced reach towards vulnerability, divisions on a burnt ground they recognise. Blood on the carpet.
And Azusa Ono’s lighting – stumblingly gloomy in lights-up – is either bright or blood-red between scenes, with an oddly audible clack. Seeing it’s in period, any symbolism seems skewed: its most practical effect is to shroud cast-shifts. Max Pappenheim’s sound is minimalism itself.
Hnath’s sinewy dialogue trails in snaking verisicles, long riveting expositions. There’s a sense he knows he’s treading on male versions of female sensibility (see Lucy Kirkwood’s great dictum), and steels his Nora against such accusation. Performative gender in writing is here, you feel, tipped faintly against emotional release. Till the end.
There seems another revealing homage beneath this sequel shaping Hnath’s approach. The writer who proclaimed modernity began with that slamming door. 1893’s the year of Ibsenite Bernard Shaw’s Mrs Warren’s Profession. There a long-absent, independent mother’s rejected by her daughter for something she’s offering her; and for what she is. In each play the daughter goes her way unaided, untainted too by the independence their mothers have wrought, however different. Here though, Emmy’s not slamming the door.
It’s that relationship one wants an emotional release in; however smart and problem-solving these protagonists are. A deepening chasm of feeling – not just the terrific last minutes – might have raised this to the pitch of a masterpiece. As it is it’s the best Part 2 we can imagine.