Nora: out of the Doll’s House?

Image: Belgrade Theatre

Nora, stage version by Ingmar Bergman, adapted from Henrik Ibsen’s famously feminist play A Doll’s House.

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry.

28th January – 18th February 2012.

Directed by Patricia Benecke.

The first cultural outing of the newly-formed Coventry Feminist Culture Club was to the Thursday 16th February performance of Nora, followed by a post-show discussion with the director and cast.

The production and the performances were good, rather than outstanding,  but the play itself provoked some very interesting thoughts and discussions.

I’ve never seen or read Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, though I’ve read a couple of essays on it in the last 12 months, and I would have liked to know the original better before going to watch Nora. Bergman’s version, I’m reliably informed, uses Ibsen’s script word for word whilst cutting the play down dramatically, to only 95 minutes long. In doing so, Bergman focuses in on the adult relationships within the play – the relationships between husband and wife, friends, employees, and lovers; Nora and Torvald’s children are entirely absent (“out with the maid”) throughout the performance.

Director Patricia Benecke chose to set her production of Nora in the present day – an interesting decision, which I’m not sure entirely worked. During the post-show discussion she pointed out that many aspects of the play are still hugely relevant today. Perhaps the most relevant feature is that this is a play about money and power – indebted Nora is obsessed with money and Torvald has a new job as manager at the bank, where, his wife ecstatically informs us, he will have a huge salary. The Co-operative Bank may not have quite the same connotations as RBS, but there’s an idea of bankers’ bonuses in there somewhere, and a society obsessed with money is certainly familiar.

Equally, almost 150 years since Ibsen first wrote A Doll’s House, there are sadly still women who feel like dolls in their own relationships; there are still women who break out of the oppressive doll’s house of their marriage, leaving their husband and sometimes their children behind. The image of a woman who is powerless, who has to submit to her husband’s whims and ask his permission for just about everything, is still not so uncommon as to look out of place in a modern setting.

There were, however, parts that just didn’t work for me. As Naomi, founder of the Coventry Feminist Culture Club, pointed out, the power of Ibsen’s original came from its 19th century context: women had far fewer rights than they do today and it was genuinely shocking for a woman to leave an unfulfilling marriage. Similarly, the doctor’s illness didn’t really seem to translate into the modern setting, and his drunkenness towards the end felt overdone, rendering a poignant character almost ridiculous.

Nora’s feminist awakening in the final scene was played very well as a conclusion to her intense trajectory from hyperactive, wound-too-tight children’s toy; to desperate, panic-stricken debtor; to helpless, subjugated doll-wife. The scene was engaging and moving, yet what stood out (and certainly sparked most discussion afterwards!) was the subject of Torvald’s seemingly gratuitous nudity. Whether its purpose was to emphasise Torvald’s physical dominance during sex with his entirely passive doll-wife, to set up his vulnerability during her departure, or merely to get press attention, the nudity felt unnecessary. He could probably have had a more powerful, and less ambiguous, impact if he’d stayed in his pants!

Overall, an enjoyable night out, a great opportunity to meet local feminists, and some interesting discussions, but I’m already planning a follow-up trip to see the real thing, Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, in London this summer.

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If you’re in Coventry or Warwickshire and interested in future Coventry Feminist Culture Club trips, the group can be found on Facebook.

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