At first Ian MacNeil’s revolving set, which regularly spins the Helmers’ home round so that we can peep into every room, looks like an estate agent’s wheeze: a 3D tour showcasing their bijou 19th-century apartment. Given its diminutive proportions it is, indeed, a pretty doll’s house. But soon it is clear that the design contributes to Carrie Cracknell’s riveting production of Ibsen’s classic, led by a vivid, moving performance from Hattie Morahan as Nora.
The rotating house initially conveys domestic bustle, as Nora and her family prepare for Christmas. But as catastrophe threatens, the revolving suggests first Nora’s panic, then her horror, as she realises the truth about her hollow marriage. Her world literally spins around her. It is part of a staging that pushes aside the familiarity of Ibsen’s text and homes in on the psychological truth of the characters. And, surprisingly, it doesn’t feel dated. Of course women now have greater equality in western society, but the play’s questioning of the roles couples can adopt in relationships still seems pertinent, and its examination of the corrosive effect of debt is, if you will pardon the pun, bang on the money.
Morahan begins by flitting prettily about, like the swallow that is her husband’s pet name for her in Simon Stephens’ supple, unobtrusive English version. But the alacrity with which she seizes on the spending money Torvald offers her, and the ease with which she fibs to him, soon hint at something darker.
As the plot unfolds and the enormity of Nora’s predicament becomes clear, her fluttering hands become more agitated: she resembles a bird trapped in a cage. It is a captivating, beautifully detailed performance, Morahan suggesting the naivety, impulsiveness and courage of her character, and drawing us along on her emotional journey. Her ice-cold horror, when she realises the truth, will speak to anyone who has been betrayed. She is matched by a rich performance from Dominic Rowan as Torvald, a charming bully, who makes the tragedy fuller by suggesting that he has played the role expected of him and has no idea how to change.
There is fine support from Susannah Wise as Nora’s pragmatic childhood friend, Kristine, and from Nick Fletcher as Krogstad, Nora’s blackmailer, a man made desperate by failure. Steve Toussaint is less secure as the sardonic, lovelorn Dr Rank and the downside of the rotating set is that it sometimes produces odd pacing, upsetting the rhythm and flow of the production. But all in all, this urgent revival makes Ibsen’s portrayal of half-lived lives as fresh and distressing as ever.