I wrote in the last issue about the wonderful range of strong roles for women in the current season at the Royal Exchange and, frankly, the new production of A Doll’s House knocks the ball out of the park. Cush Jumbo gives a fantastic performance as Nora, a woman infantilised by her domineering husband. Jumbo captures the vapidity of the bourgeoisie ‘struggle’ with as much authenticity and potency as she does Nora’s growing desperation and finally her sudden comprehension of her unequal relationship with her husband, Torvald.
To the modern eye there is something obviously abusive about their marriage. Torvald, played with skin-crawling condescension by David Sturzaker, treats his ‘little bird’ more like his daughter than his wife. There is nothing physical about his abuse of Nora but their relationship is horrendously unequal and manipulative.
Ibsen intended his play to be a critique of the contemporary institution of marriage in Norway when he wrote it in 1879. It was highly controversial and sent ripples through the traditional country, as well as the rest of Europe. A Doll’s House is reminder of the importance of women’s liberation at its most literal. This portrayal of a patriarchal and rigid society, governed by men and their conception of honour, is like the subjects of a staged Victorian photograph coming to life. I longed for its chilly, antique norms and strictures to be challenged and subtly they were. Jumbo plays Nora’s fragile declaration of her independence with incredible dignity and resolve. It is declaration of empowerment that was a provocative challenge in the 1870s and it will also confront complacent audiences today.
A Doll’s House is at the Royal Exchange in Manchester until 1st June 2013.