Ibsen A doll’s house (1879) ends with a slammed door; A dollhouse, part 2 (2017) begins by knocking on the same door. The sequel from American playwright Lucas Hnath imagines Nora, the woman famous for not wanting to be a woman, returning, 15 years after leaving her husband and children; he asks what she did – and what she might do next.
As Nora, Noma Dumezweni is imposing if sometimes overly deliberate in her speech, with sentences that hang together like snowballs. She arrives covered in a heavy 1879-style dress that is not designed to help anyone get through the world. It might blend in with the furnishings of a turn-of-the-century living room, but Rae Smith’s design is deliberately stripped down.
This The doll house is a hybrid: it uses the 21st century idiom – “I’m mad at you” – while deviating from Ibsen’s living conditions, with maids and clerks and very clear guidelines on how to behave like a respectable married woman. Nora is distressed because she thought she was divorced – and isn’t. The implication throughout the evening is that much has not changed in the past 140 or so years: that marriage can still suffocate.
It is uplifting to hear that being alone can be exhilarating, especially for women; this is rarely said. It’s persuasive – and truly feminist – for Hnath to point out that Mr. Nora might also have been exasperated by the cuteness of his marriage. Yet the most acute argument advanced against the departing – that she claimed to want to talk but had simply had an epiphany and quit – is also the least psychologically penetrating. The marriage dismantled Nora’s talking powers: she could not speak; she could only jump; it was created for drama, not debate.
It is an intriguing piece, not transporting. Patricia Allison is silver and sharp like Nora’s daughter – independent of her mother but surprisingly conventional; June Watson is gorgeous as a beak housekeeper. James Macdonald’s finely focused production captures – both to the eyes and to the ears – every twist of the debate. Like spectators in a boxing ring, the audience sits around the action. Smith’s design puts forward its own argument: a heavy miniature house, which weighs heavily on the stage before the action begins, lifts up to show a place empty of personal history, in which people must compete without pretention. Under Azusa Ono’s lighting, the scene glows and fades, as if lit by dying embers, past passions.
August Wilson’s American Century Cycle is one of the great projects of modern theatre: 10 plays, two of which were made into films by Denzel Washington, aiming to trace the black experience through each decade of the 20th century. It is grand not only in its historical scope, but also in the fluidity with which the playwright can move between documentary and dream, inner and outer life. Jitneywritten in 1979, is one of the most deeply realistic dramas.
Set in a cab office (a jitney is an unlicensed cab) in Pittsburgh, where Wilson grew up, the play jostles with the various biographies of the drivers. A young man has been released from prison after 20 years for killing a white woman who claimed he raped her. A former tailor, able to tailor a suit in seconds, struggles with whiskey cravings. Sule Rimi, with loose joints and a loose tongue, is remarkable as an indiscreet gossip, as are Wil Johnson, leader of the drivers, fueled by a sad anger and Leanne Henlon (the only woman on stage), delicately warm but suspicious of his beloved. . As always, Wilson doesn’t allow any character to be there as a filler or as a cute cameo. Nobody owns the common thread of the plot, which belongs to Pittsburgh itself: white improvements in the city that weigh on the lives of these characters.
It’s a shame that in Tinuke Craig’s lively and sometimes indistinct intermittent production, Alex Lowde’s design is flat. The particularly antiseptic office is perched against black-and-white videos of the city, rather than overrun with destruction. However, the originality of the piece shines through. When I first saw it 20 years ago, I thought it moved like jazz. Now a more bizarre comparison has occurred to me. Punctuated by the constant ringing of the phone and the minute-by-minute opening and closing of the office door, the action, though fierce, perilous and urgent, has the intricate timing and almost balletic quality of a French stuffing. . August Wilson never ceases to amaze.
Star ratings (out of five)
A dollhouse, part 2 ★★★