If the bee had to pick its least favourite play among everything it has ever watched in London, sorry folks, but this one would have to be a top contender. But first, a few preliminaries on what this play is about and what is it 'Part 2' to.
Preliminaries - What to know before you go to A Doll's House Part 2
Is this the classical play A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen?
No. It is a sequel to the classical play A Doll’s House which was written by Henrik Ibsen, the Norwegian playwright, and first staged in 1879. A Doll’s House part 2 is a play written by contemporary playwright Lucas Hnath in 2017. While the original play is set in a Norwegian town in 1879, the current play picks up 15 years later in the same setting, imagining what may have happened after Ibsen’s celebrated (and sometimes controversial) ending in the original play.
Do I need to watch the original A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen before I watch part 2?
No, the current play is self-contained. You are introduced to whatever you need to know from the original quite early on in the play. It doesn't hurt to have context, though. It may benefit to read up on the events that led up to the original play's climax (spoiler ahead): the protagonist, Nora, walks out on her family, leaving behind her husband, three kids and caretaker Anne-Marie. You might appreciate the controversy surrounding an ending like this in 19th century Europe, which by many measures wasn’t ready to accept or forgive women casting aside their traditional roles as wives and mothers in favour of finding individual expression. My favourite synopsis of the original play is the one on Sparknotes.
Tell me what I need to know about part 1 in a minute or less.
Okay. Characters - Mother and wife Nora. Husband and father Torvald. Three kids. Anne-Marie, the housekeeper and caretaker. Central theme - Nora is disillusioned by her lack of individual identity as a quintessential 19th century wife, tied to and dependent on her husband for everything. Feeling stifled by the institution of marriage and its crippling of female self-assertion, she walks out on her family at the end of the play.
A Review of A Doll's House Part 2
The bee walks into the auditorium at the lovely Donmar Warehouse and finds that a heavy, rustic wooden house fills the stage, with the audience seated on all four sides. One might expect that inside the walls lies a cosy, old-fashioned family home with antique furniture, comfortable seating and the quaint aura of a place that has been lived in for a long time.
The house lifts up to reveal a minimalistic set consisting of four rather plain wooden chairs and a tiny coffee table with a water jug. The austerity of the living room contrasts jarringly with the gaudy (albeit dull-coloured) costumes of the actors, especially Nora. Anne-Marie, whose frailty might have warranted a little more snugness in the décor, seems rather out of place in the brashly empty living room, perhaps designed to look that way to reflect the void Nora left behind when she walked out on her family fifteen years ago.
(Spoiler warning) As the plot unfolds, we find out that Nora has become a writer in the time she has been away, using the written word to propagate a rather extreme view of marriage that argues that the institution throttles individual female identity and expression, and the only way to find oneself again is to be rid of it. This view is, rather naively, driven a little too much by her own perceived experience of the institution, less so by the actual way the institution manifested in her life, and still less by contrarian experiences of other women that do not mirror her own.
Now, the bee isn’t of the opinion that one must be an expert at something to comment on it - you don’t need to have been in a dozen marriages or researched the institution for a decade in a dozen cultures to voice an opinion on it - but to overgeneralise from your own limited experience of it is a dangerous thing, and Nora seems to have gotten away with doing just that. The bee is aching for a more balanced, considered debate of the question but was left unsatisfied.
The bee finds partial gratification when Emmy, Nora’s daughter, arrives and shocks Nora with her nonchalance and alacrity, her “Hello there, I’m your daughter” instead of a traumatic, teary rendez-vous of estranged daughter and mother. Emmy proceeds to announce her marital engagement, much to Nora’s chagrin, whose rather half-hearted attempt to dissuade her daughter from setting foot into that (in Nora’s view, toxic) arrangement is met with cold indifference and the astute observation that Nora isn’t and cannot possibly be the expert on what all women want.
Nora: “What do you know about marriage? Nothing!”
Emmy: “That’s right. I know nothing about marriage. But I know what its absence looks like in a home.”
Besides the occasional quirky response from Emmy, the bee disliked the incomplete and rather chaotic development of the marriage question. Nora has the first word, the last word, and remains unchallenged. Her views are polarised to the point of sounding even comical and the bee was aching to have at least one of the other characters pull her into a considered, intellectual debate.
The way Nora describes her suffocation in marriage appeared embellished for effect, especially when she says she often felt like a doll - a mere plaything - to Torvald, who to be fair seemed a lot deeper and more considerate than Nora was willing to give him credit for. The bee wished that someone or something would bestow upon her the slightest bit of humility that her suffering did not immediately invalidate the entire institution of marriage.
On Nora’s novel about her marriage:
Torvald: “It was painful to read it.”
Nora: “It was painful to live it.”
The bee could not help rolling its eyes. It takes two to break up a marriage, even in nineteenth century Norway where women didn’t enjoy the rights they do today. Nora really needed to get out of her own head, but the audience is left unappeased by the lack of a character that could match Nora in strength and argumentative resilience, although Emmy comes close.
Torvald comes across as a likeable chap, and not in the slightest bit as narcissistic or controlling as Nora makes him out to be. The bee doesn’t know if he had changed over time or if Nora was always misguided about him, but is tempted to believe the latter. Nora assumes he would like her only when she is his 'doll', his damsel in distress, dependent on him for everything. But he makes the fair point that she could’ve been herself and tried him. There’s a good chance he may have liked her that way too. But Nora is too committed to the volumes she has written about her marriage in which she has ossified the fictional Torvald character to the point of no return, to really listen to the real Torvald now.
In all, Nora was a nuisance of a character to the bee. This is not to fault the actors in the slightest; Noma Dumezweni does full justice to the Nora she was tasked to play. The bee’s problem is with the script - it is at best a touch-and-go exploration of something as complex and considered as marriage; it puts the audience through countless minutes of pointless bickering between ex-husband and wife that would lead to neither learning nor growth; and while it offers up a vivacious and delightful Emmy, it does not shed any light on the roots of her cheerfulness despite childhood abandonment. The events are set in a painfully austere stage that did nothing to invite the audience into the experience. All in all, the bee learned nothing of value beyond the most clichéd arguments against marriage, came into nothing thought-provoking, and was rather unimpressed with the lack of complexity and depth.
Watched 21 June 2022 at the Donmar Warehouse, London.