Like Ivo van Hove’s pared-down revival of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge, Jamie Lloyd’s new Broadway production of Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 A Doll’s House uses no sets or props and all black costumes for the entire cast. Going even further than van Hove, he has the heroine Nora Helmer played by film star Jessica Chastain seated almost for the entire length of this intermission-less three-act play. Using a new version by Amy Herzog recast in spare modern vernacular, this Doll’s House proves to be riveting and intense, even if you know the play very well, focusing our attention on the dialogue, the acting and emotion, rather than the décor and the historical trappings of 19th century Norway as we usually do.
This, of course, puts a greater burden on the actors who have nothing to work with except their voices, faces and Ibsen’s language. Lloyd’s cast of six, like those in his recent rap version of Cyrano de Bergerac seen at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, is up to the task and keeps us hanging on their every word. The newly staged ending is as shocking today as the original ending which is cited for beginning what we now call modern drama.
Chastain plays a wife of eight years who appears to have it all. However, she discovers that she has been treated as a doll child by her father and since then a doll wife by her husband who as typical of chauvinistic men sees her as his play thing. On this particular Christmas Eve, three things occur to shatter the complacency of Nora and her husband Torvald.
Nora has a secret which she has managed to keep from her husband throughout their married life: when he became ill in the first year after they were wed, she borrowed just under 5,000 from a money lender with her husband never knowing, a crime in 1879 as wives were not allowed to borrow money without their husbands’ consent. Torvald has now been appointed manager of the local bank and his first act is to fire Nils Krogstad, unaware that he holds the promissory note on his wife’s loan.
At the same time, Nora’s former school friend Kristine Linde turns up, now widowed without children, looking for a job and Torvald, on Nora’s prompting, gives her one – which turns out to be the one that he has just fired Krogstad from. Making this all the more convoluted, Krogstad and Kristine had an understanding previously but as she needed to support her mother and two younger brothers she threw him over and married a man she did not love for financial support. Krogstad threatens to blackmail Torvald if Nora does not get him his job back as his reputation will not stand up to the disgrace.
Nora finds she has three choices: tell her husband, borrow from their family friend, the rich bachelor Dr. Rank, or commit suicide. The play also demonstrates women’s roles on other levels. Years before, their children’s nanny Anne-Marie, had to give up her child as she was an unwed mother, in order to make a living, and Kristine’s loveless marriage was her choice for survival. When Nora and Torvald have their inevitable third act confrontation, he declares “No man sacrifices his dignity for the person he loves,” to which Nora responds: “Hundreds of thousands of women have done just that.” Controversial when it was first written, this line received applause today at the performance under review.
Among Lloyd’s innovations are to have Chastain seated on stage on a revolving turntable looking into the distance before the audience comes in. This might be interpreted that the entire drama is a memory play in which Nora is thinking back to events from earlier in her life. One by one the actors enter and take seats on the stage. This is backed by eerie music by Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto that resembles that of Philip Glass. Chastain sits almost throughout the play while the various characters come up to her, some sitting like her husband next to her and the ill Dr. Rank who is in a wheelchair, and Krogstad who sits back to back with her as if a distance apart, while others like Kristine and Anne-Marie stand a bit of a distance away.
Chastain’s performance is mesmerizing as she develops from rebellious child in Act I, to adolescent in Act II, to mature woman in Act III. However, the gradations are so subtle, more so since there are no intermissions, that one does not immediately notice but it grows on you. She has come a long way since her New York stage performances as Desdemona in Othello and Catherine Sloper in The Heiress.
Arian Moayed, currently best known for his Emmy Award-nominated role on Succession, is both suave and smarmy as Torvald, a towering figure of male paternalism. As Krogstad, Okieriete Onaodowan is sinister as the loan shark but sympathetic nevertheless, playing the part very low-key. Jesmille Darbouze’s Kristine is equally low-key as the compassionate friend trying to figure out what is going on in the Helmer home. As Dr. Rank, Michael Patrick Thornton is ironic and wry, seeing both Nora and Torvald as they really are. Tasha Lawrence plays Anne-Marie very much to the vest, not allowing her own feelings to get in the way of her relations with her employers.
Soutra Gilmour’s stripped-down setting, an empty stage which shows the back wall of the theater, but has two turntables which deliver the actors is symbolic of Lloyd’s direction and Herzog’s new version of the script. The intensity of the performance is highlighted by the lighting by Jon Clark which gets dimmer as the play unfolds, finally focusing on just the actors’ faces in the final scene. The all-black contemporary costumes by Gilmour and Enver Chakartash also help to focus the action on just the actors, their faces and voices. They also suggest that the time could be now rather than 1879, as does the contemporary language of the new version. Has the approach been inspired by the work of Audible and podcasts? Audiences seem to be comfortable with less and less scenery in Broadway revivals. In any case, Jamie Lloyd’s production of A Doll’s House is a major dramatic event and should not be missed by anyone interested in serious plays with something to say.
A Doll’s House (through June 10, 2023)
The Jamie Lloyd Company
Hudson Theatre, 141 W. 44th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.adollshousebroadway.com
Running time: one hour and 55 minutes without an intermission