“Marriage is cruel and destroys people’s lives.” I mean… it’s a recording. In Lucas Hnath’s sequel to Ibsen’s 1879 proto-feminist drama, we find out what Nora Helmer did next — and it seems she’s become something of an anti-marriage influencer. After leaving her husband and children, she got a book deal. Well they say everything is copy.
A dollhouse ends with one of modern drama’s pivotal moments: a door slamming as Nora bravely walks into her future alone. in the Part 2, the references are immediate: it begins with a knock on the door. Fifteen years have passed and Nora (Noma Dumezweni) is back to sort through a belated life manager. We discover that Torvald (Brian F. O’Byrne) never signed the divorce papers. The couple is still married. Nora worries that she will be exposed as both a fraud and a criminal; She’s been behaving in ways that married women shouldn’t (read: spend money and do big). Ideally, she doesn’t want to talk to her children. She is also reunited with nanny Anne Marie (June Watson), who tells her everyone thought she was dead.
Is this meta fiction? Or Ibsen fanfiction? Either way, it’s a pretty niche kink for a hot summer night. More think-piece than drama, Hnath’s play was a hit on Broadway in 2017 and earned Laurie Metcalf a Tony. For the UK premiere, directed by James Macdonald, Rae Smith has staged a house; When the piece begins, the roof rises. People gasp. But if we thought we were about to see the lid lifted on something, the interior space is more sparse.
It’s clear early on that this is going to be a schematic evening – when Nora jokes about the marriage. “In 20 to 30 years, marriage will be a thing of the past,” she argues. Some of Hnath’s questions are intriguing and unexpected – who has access to the quest for self? – but others feel artificial. That Hnath writes in a modern colloquial language – Nora speaks of her “best self” – clouds the thinking. If we hold these characters by modern standards, it’s unclear whether we’re discussing a 19th-century notion of marriage or a more contemporary one, so it ends up feeling academic. The plot twists and turns depend a little too much on people not bothering to fill out forms. Who knew patriarchy was so dependent on petty bureaucracy?
Even more compelling is Hnath’s ability to get us to switch sympathies. “They made a lot of assumptions,” says Nora’s daughter Emmy. It feels like an indictment of our current discourse of bad intentions. We see Nora ignoring Torvald’s pain. And yet there is far more at stake for her than hurt feelings. In Nanny Anne Marie, who raised Nora’s children at her own expense, we are reminded that women’s independence is usually made possible through the labor of other women. Both characters felt they had no choice but to abandon their children — and yet the distinction between economic and spiritual needs is stark.
The cast lets the Donmar crackle with restrained anger. Dumezweni’s Straight Back Nora always arranges her stance and occasionally clenches a fist behind her back, while O’Byrne’s Torvald is often unable to face her. As her daughter Emmy, Patricia Allison is full of gunslinger merriment, while Watson’s Anne Marie finally gets fed up and just starts swearing. “F*** you, Nora,” she hisses.
At the end of the piece, Nora attempts to articulate how deeply embedded male voices and expectations are in her psyche. It is all the tougher because it was written by two men – Hnath and Ibsen. The return of that legendary door slam at the end is a startling point. Feminism in Action or the Punctuation of Patriarchy?
A Doll’s House, Part 2 runs through August 6th at the Donmar Warehouse