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A Doll’s House, Part 2 is a reflective piece for Ibsen Stans

“Marriage is cruel and destroys people’s lives.” I mean…it’s a catch. 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 abandoning her children, she got a book deal. Well, they say everything is copy.

A doll’s house ends with one of the defining moments of modern drama: the slamming of a door, as Nora bravely steps into her future, alone. In Part 2, the references are immediate: it starts with the sound of a knock on the door. Fifteen years have passed and Nora (Noma Dumezweni) is back to sort out a belated administrator life. Torvald (Brian F O’Byrne), it turns out, never signed the divorce papers. The couple are still married. Nora fears being exposed as both a con artist and a criminal; she behaved in a way that married women aren’t expected to (read: spend money and do it a lot). Ideally, she doesn’t want to talk to her children. She also reunites with nanny Anne Marie (June Watson), who informs her that everyone thought she was dead.

Is it a meta-fiction? Or Ibsen fanfic? Either way, it’s a nice niche for a hot summer night. Hnath’s play, more of a thought piece than a drama, was a hit on Broadway in 2017 and earned Laurie Metcalf a Tony. For the UK premiere, directed by James Macdonald, Rae Smith put a house on stage; when the play begins, the roof rises. People gasp. But if we thought we were about to see the lid lifted on something, the interior is more sparse.

Patricia Allison and Noma Dumezweni in “A Doll’s House, Part 2”

(Marc Brenner)

It’s clear from the start — when Nora spouts on the wedding — that it’s going to be a sketchy evening. “In 20 to 30 years, marriage will be a thing of the past,” she says. Some of Hnath’s questions are compelling and unexpected – who has access to the search for individuality? – but others feel contrived. The fact that Hnath writes in a modern vernacular – Nora talks about her “better self” – blurs the thought. If we hold these characters to modern standards, it’s unclear whether we’re debating a 19th century idea of ​​marriage or a more contemporary one, so it ends up feeling academic. Plot twists depend a bit too much on people not bothering to fill out forms. Who knew patriarchy was so dependent on petty bureaucracy?

More compelling is Hnath’s ability to shift our sympathy. “You made a lot of assumptions,” said Emmy, Nora’s daughter. It sounds like an indictment of our current rhetoric of bad faith. We see Nora ignore Torvald’s pain. And yet, for her, there is much more than hurt feelings at stake. In nanny Anne Marie, who raised Nora’s children at the expense of her own, we are reminded that women’s independence is usually enabled by the work of other women. Both characters felt they had no choice but to leave their children – and yet the distinction between economic and spiritual needs is stark.

“A Dollhouse, Part 2”

(Marc Brenner)

The cast makes the Donmar crackle with contained fury. Dumezweni’s straight-backed Nora always organizes her posture, sometimes clenching a fist behind her back, while O’Byrne’s Torvald often physically cannot face her. As their daughter Emmy, Patricia Allison is all guns blazing, while Watson’s Anne Marie eventually gets fed up and starts swearing. “Fuck you, Nora,” she spits.

At the end of the piece, Nora tries to express how deeply male voices and expectations are embedded in her psyche. It’s all the sweeter because it’s written by two men – Hnath and Ibsen. The return of that legendary door slam at the end is a surprising full stop. Feminism in action, or the punctuation of patriarchy?

‘A Doll’s House, Part 2’ runs at Donmar’s Warehouse until August 6