Review: Nora (Belvoir St Theatre)

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Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Aug 9 – Sep 14, 2014
Playwrights: Kit Brookman, Anne-Louise Sarks (after A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen)
Director: Anne-Louise Sarks
Actors: Blazey Best, Linda Cropper, Finn Dauphinee, Damien Ryan, Ava Strybosch
Image by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
It is no surprise that artists are drawn to the idea of reconstructing Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. The power of the original text and the stunning questions it poses have kept audiences debating for centuries. Kit Brookman and Anne-Louise Sarks’ updated version brings key characters to contemporary times, with the first act presenting a condensed re-telling of Ibsen’s story, and the second act continuing on from the legendary cliffhanger.

Act one is an elegant revisit that places focus on Nora, her husband Torvald and their children. It effectively communicates the anguish that could result from a life that includes only homemaking duties, and shifts Ibsen’s burden of blame away from Torvald, so that Nora’s own decisions and actions are implicated. This is an important new perspective that amplifies the play’s central theme of personal empowerment. We see Nora’s struggle and understand it to be a consequence of an individual’s poor decisions. The protagonist is no longer seen only as a victim of circumstances beyond her control, so her determination to find liberation resonates with greater complexity. Also successful is visual design of the production’s initial half. Marg Horwell’s set and Paul Jackson’s lights magically transform the stage into a middle class home with a deceptive foreboding warmth and see-through walls that indicate a sense of deficiency. The space is intimate and claustrophobic, giving us insight into a life that is visibly cosy, but oppressive under the surface.

Act two comprises mainly of a single scene, taking place only hours after Nora leaves her home. There are parallels with Ibsen’s original where Nora’s friend comes to her for help with seeking employment, but the show’s second half is largely a new invention that examines her future more closely. Unfortunately, Brookman and Sarks’ vision seems to dwell too heavily on Nora’s shock and confusion, which prevent character development and do not add enough interest to the unfolding aftermath. Also too obvious is the revelation that her responsibilities over her children must be met, regardless of the divorce. This commonplace discovery feels awkwardly trite, and it prevents drama and tension from taking hold. In 2014, we all know that there simply is no rationale for any woman to abandon everything she knows in order to cultivate a better life for herself in the Western world.

Damien Ryan’s performance as the updated Torvald is intelligently crafted. We see a man who has not been attentive to his spouse’s emotional world, but unlike his predecessor, his behaviour is not particularly undignified. He plays the familiar role of a regular modern day husband, and makes us wonder if our social conventions and expectations are enough for making a happy home life. This Torvald does not display glaring misjudgments, so we attribute guilt to him in a much more nuanced way. The dark and problematic role of Nora is played by Blazey Best who invests heavily into portraying her character’s torment. Her commitment is evident, but concluding moments reveal a less than convincing sequel to Nora’s story. Best plays her disorientation well, but that prolonged state of bewilderment seems to prevent the narrative from going somewhere more compelling and theatrical. The ultimate resolution or perhaps lack thereof, gives a feeling that the show is undercooked and prematurely unveiled.

The idea of Nora is experimental, but its spirit is less brave. It is radical in concept but not in execution. Nora’s story is about being stuck, and about the courage that is necessary for a breakthrough to occur, but the production appears to be confined by a shortage in risk and adventure. The original work ends at a point that fires up imagination. Thinking about the characters’ fates become irresistible, and their stories are brought to completion in private fantasies. Masterpieces are intimidating, and overhauling the great Ibsen’s writing looks to be as hard as building a new house that aims to improve upon a perfection that resides only in our minds.

www.belvoir.com.au