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The Theatreguide.London Review

Nora: A Doll's House
Young Vic Theatre     Spring 2020

Playwright Stef Smith thinks Ibsen's classic A Doll's House needs help in being relevant to the Twenty-first Century. She's wrong, of course, but her attempt to gild the lily is inventive and entertaining enough in its own right to be well worth seeing.

A reminder: Nora, married to a stuffy banker who treats her like a child, once forged a loan application that saved his life. She's being blackmailed and fears his wrath when he finds out. But he disappoints her even more by being patronisingly forgiving.

She realises he's never had any respect for her and she has a lot of growing up to do, which she can only begin by leaving him. The play ends with the most famous sound effect in all of world drama, the offstage door closing behind her.

Stef Smith creates three women in different periods: a strong suffragette in 1918, a dim flower child in 1968 and a downmarket Scottish haufrau in 2018.

Onstage together, they narrate and live out their variants on Nora's story, taking turns seizing the spotlight or retiring to Chorus status, and also taking turns playing the other female role, Nora's friend Christine.

(Meanwhile three male actors are limited to one role each as husband, villain and neighbour across the timelines.)

The flow of narrative and action as the three Noras take their turns is attractive and engaging. Although there are minor concessions to chronology – the 1960s Nora fiddles a credit card application, and the 2018 version gets a payday loan – the real variations are in the characterisations.

The suffragette's strength, the 60s version's dippiness and the modern woman's no-nonsense practicality bounce off each other in ways that enrich all three characterisations and the overall picture of a complex woman.

Meanwhile – full credit to the playwright, director Elizabeth Freestone and the performers – the flow of the narrative and the individual characterisations remain always clear.

Indeed, at several points one actress can carry on two conversations at once, playing Nora to a second's Christine and Christine to a third's Nora.

Amaka Okafor (1918), Natalie Klamar (1968) and Anna Russell-Martin (2018) deserve praise for both their individual characterisations and the group-created image of Nora they collaborate on, with Okafor the most successful Christine.

Among the men, the script gives Zephryn Taitte as the neighbour little opportunity to do more than generously serve the play, while Luke Norris is most successful at differentiating among the three versions of the husband he plays.

But it is Mark Arends who stands out, surprisingly able to generate sympathy for the villain by presenting him as a victim of circumstances.

There are some minor missteps along the way. A lesbian element is gratuitously and distractingly introduced to one of the timelines, and a coda suggesting what happened to each Nora after that door closed only weakens a play that knows where it wants to end.

But if Stef Smith's play is unnecessary as an 'improvement' on Ibsen, it stands well on its own merits as an alternative look at the same material.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  Nora - Young Vic Theatre 2020