Directors often cave in to actors who want to indicate every suppressed emotion and withhold nothing. If a character is hiding something, they show it. But that turning of subtext into text strips plots of surprise and robs audiences of the thrill of discovery. Carrie Cracknell’s dazzling production of “A Doll’s House” never makes that mistake. Hattie Morahan’s spellbinding Nora keeps the stakes forever high but no one’s feelings are displayed too soon. Even audiences that know the play’s trajectory are held in thrall in a near three-hour thriller.
Not that Cracknell is afraid of a bold gesture. That much is immediately made evident in her production’s opening image. Ian MacNeil’s design takes its cue from the title, presenting four rooms and linked corridors of the Helmers’ household swirling round on a turntable to Stuart Earl’s plaintive but insistent music. We catch glimpses of Torvald (Dominic Rowan) at work in his study as servants come and go bringing the Christmas tree into the living room as Nora attempts to manage proceedings and sort out the presents she has bought.
On a literal level, this is a dollhouse, the constricting home in which Nora lives, childlike, in what she finally comes to understand as a state ignorance. But as the plot thickens, the spiralling movement takes on the power of metaphor as everything the household represents seems to be tightening noose-like around Nora’s swanlike neck.
The period setting remains 1878, with all that the date implies about the roles of husbands and wives, and the translation by Simon Stephens (“Bluebird,” the upcoming “Harper Regan” at Off Broadway’s Atlantic Theater Company) cleaves firmly to Ibsen’s vision. There are no anachronisms of speech, but the rhythm and pace of the dialogue feel strikingly immediate. That’s down to both Stephens’ unadorned dialogue and the breaking up of long scenes via turntable shifts that show characters moving from room to room.
Having Nora move so easily and swiftly through the house underlines her need to escape the prying eyes and ears of, say, her servants. Equally strongly, having Nora being blackmailed or confiding secrets to others when the so-far oblivious Torvald just feet away in the adjoining room makes the tension rocket.
It’s typical of the production that as the blackmailing Krogstadt, Nick Fletcher appears utterly reasonable. Flaunting incriminating evidence, he is usually played as obviously wicked. But Fletcher presents him as a man who hopes for the best. His easeful presence makes the situation horribly plausible and, therefore, all the more terrifying when desperation sets in and he begins tightening the screw.
Equally, his initially reasonable, calm position makes his crucial past and future relationship with Nora’s old friend Kristine (Susannah Wise) far more believable. As traditionally presented, her move to help Nora by marrying Krogstadt makes her look noble but sad and weak. His very plausibility frees Wise up to present Kristine as a more fully rounded character. And that, in turn, strengthens the relationship between her and Nora.
It’s an actors’ cliche to say that she’s “in the moment” but nothing in Morahan’s high-wire act feels premeditated. Bright-eyed and high spirited, she starts out as coquettish, the little bird of her husband’s fantasy. The physical relationship between Morahan and Rowan is particularly convincing and this elegantly costumed, confident Nora is ringingly safe in her naivety, convinced that her sexual power will be able to control her husband.
The key to the excitement she generates is that the more terrified she grows, the faster she reacts. Instead of passively indicating the trouble she’s in, she races to keep control, forcing audiences to run with her to catch up with the emotional undertow.
Rowan (and the translation) lean slightly too far toward the predictable stuffed-shirt approach to the role of Torvald. But ultimately, his underlining of Torvald’s inability to see the world from anything but a dominating male perspective pays dividends. In the famous final showdown, his intransigence is deeply shocking. As her feelings pour forth, Morahan makes you understand that Nora isn’t just expressing everything for the first time, but that every sensation and thought is terrifyingly new. Her performance and Cracknell’s production turn a classic revival into a major event.