Negative incapability: Belvoir’s Nora

Ibsen’s work has been getting a bit of an airing in Sydney in the past eight weeks: first, Hedda Gabler at Belvoir, then Sport for Jove’s A Doll’s House at the Seymour Centre, and now Nora, a sequel of sorts to A Doll’s House, also at Belvoir. Not helped by inevitable comparisons between it and Adena Jacobs’ Hedda Gabler which immediately preceded it in the same space, Nora – written by Kit Brookman and Anne-Louise Sarks – is the story of Ibsen’s eponymous character after she leaves the doll’s house and ventures forth of her own accord.
Set on a blank black stage with the rooms and walls of the Helmer’s house made from wooden frames criss-crossing it like a modern flat-pack labyrinth, we first see Torvald sitting at the kitchen table reading the paper, while Nora reads stories in their children’s room. Lit in pools of bright and golden light, there is a darkness and a shadowyness to the rest of house, a suffocating claustrophobia which harkens back to Ibsen’s play, and it seems that this time around, following Hedda Gabler at least, there is to be more Ibsen and more of a sense of restriction.

While the frames of Marg Horwell’s house-like set are suitably cage-like, crucial sightlines are obscured and performances seem to be hampered by a very real awareness that the frames aren’t all that structurally sturdy. Extending deep into the Belvoir corner, Horwell’s set also feels rather distant, as well as distancing, especially in the crucial scene in the Helmer’s bedroom when Nora tells Torvald she is leaving. I understand the desire to show the house around Nora like a cage so she feels trapped, closed-in, as though her wings have been clipped, just as co-writer Kit Brookman articulates in his program notes, “doors, like ceilings, still abound. The language of architecture, of a home, is often deployed to describe exclusion, limitation, the withholding of power.” But to appropriate Brookman’s words, the architecture of language is also present in Ibsen’s play, and is very much a part of how and why Nora feels trapped in her relationship and marriage to Torvald, just as much as through his actions. Here though, we don’t feel that Nora is truly trapped by Torvald; bored, certainly, and treated as though she’s much younger, perhaps, but not really trapped or stuck. The thrilling thing about Ibsen’s play, about the ending of A Doll’s House, is that it shows a woman stretching her wings, flapping them desperately, and then taking flight, flying far away from her cage and into the world outside the door of Torvald’s house. We don’t need to know what Nora does next because that’s not what Ibsen is – was – concerned with; it’s not about a woman’s emancipation, but a woman’s awakening, her taste of liberty unrestricted by marriage or her husband’s control. In Nora, however, I never felt Nora was stuck, never felt that Torvald was truly controlling of her, and didn’t feel that the stakes were all that high; I don’t believe this Nora would have truly left her family and marriage and ‘started again.’
In her program notes, Sarks says how “Ibsen’s now-famous door slam is the pivot around which our new play moves.” I guess I should not be surprised when this literally is the case; I suppose I should have read the blurb more closely. Rather than “beginning with Ibsen’s tale and then following Nora out the door,” I somewhat-naïvely hoped that we would be getting a new play that showed what a twenty-first century Nora would have done once she closed that door and started to make a life of her own; a play about freedom and struggle and fighting to be heard, a play about equality, possibility, and liberty from the entrenched shackles of the patriarchy. A play that began with Ibsen’s final scene and the slamming door, and then continued onwards and upwards into the bigness of the future. Rather, Brookman and Sarks’ Nora – the play as much as the character – is a flat, empty, and unemotional play that proves, yet again, perhaps how much hasn’t changed. At least it has that in common with Ibsen’s play.
Act One of Brookman and Sarks’ play is essentially a quite decent contemporised (albeit abridged) version of Ibsen’s Doll’s House; all the important beats and moments are covered, though it does feel like something important is missing. Set entirely in the Helmer’s house, we see the family unit slowly crack until Nora says she’s leaving, gathers her wits about her, and walks out the door, plunging us into the interval without so much as the click of a lock behind her (let alone Ibsen’s slam). The stage-crew arrives and proceeds to dismantle Horwell’s set, rearranging it into a tiny one-room apartment for Act Two which is pure invention, a strange mix of maudlin confessions, revelations, hallucinations and despair; Nora calls upon her (now-distant) friend Helen in the middle of the night and the two women talk about relationships, decisions and their repercussions over a few glasses of gin. Again, there is an (avoidable) sense of distance and distancing from the audience, as if this is all happening at one remove from reality in a theatrically-heightened world, which of course it is. The apartment is pushed too far back on the stage for us to gain any emotional identification with the characters, and the close-set proximity of its four walls only serves to alienate us further.
Ibsen’s Doll’s House flies by in two-and-a-bit hours of tense thriller-like plotting, of conversation and action, where every beat culminates in the emotional defiance of Nora’s leaving speech at the end and the door slam. In Nora however, that is not the case. Perhaps an oblique metaphor for the approach to the play’s genesis and existence, Horwell’s set creates a rudimentary frame for the discussion and (very little) action to sit around and inside of. And inaction and discussion is what we get. Where Act One is an hour of Nora feeling disconnected and emotionally dissatisfied with her marriage, an hour of conversation that drips like water from a tap, Act Two sees Nora and Helen sitting around talking about what Nora has just done with barely anything else besides – no music, no distraction, just an hour of meandering talk. Not only does this set the production’s pace in slow-motion, but it makes it feel a lot longer than it needs to; it makes us see Nora for what it (she?) is – a discussion on the issues raised by Ibsen in A Doll’s House, and gently prodding us to ask if we have changed since then.
Brookman calls Nora “heroic,” but I don’t think that’s the right word. Courageous or strong, certainly, but not heroic, because those connotations are more often than not masculine, and that’s not what Ibsen is – was – on about. Brookman continues by saying how Nora is the embodiment of what the poet John Keats called ‘negative capability’ – the process by which “a [person] is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Keats used this principle in a direct critique upon those who sought to categorise all experience and phenomena and turn them into a theory of knowledge; it resounds with the power of being able to transcend and grow beyond one’s circumstances, embodies the rejection of the constraints of context as well as the right to assert your own individuality and right of individual action upon any action or circumstance. For all this explanation, I don’t think Brookman and Sarks’ Nora – the play as much as their character – was the embodiment of Keats’ negative capability at all, but rather someone who felt the constraints of their (our) society only too keenly and who tried to fly away but could not.
In the relationship between Damien Ryan’s Torvald and Blazey Best’s Nora, there is the kind of time-worn familiarity which marriage and/or relationships creates. There is no “romantic bubble,” as Adam Cook calls it, but “pain and recrimination[,] guilt and accusations[,] loneliness and the death of passion,” as well as hidden bank accounts and chocolate freckles eaten behind the couch in secret. “[Torvald and Nora] do not [fully] understand each other [and] Nora [leaves] with no [real] idea about what is right or wrong.” While their performances are largely truthful, there is a sense of holding-back, a kind of restraint, a lack of emotional engagement with either the story or each other, and it only serves to further enhance the distance that is felt between audience and stage, even though physically we are right on its edge, though perhaps that is the point. Linda Cropper’s Helen is similarly distant and unsure of how to act around Nora although, understandably, that comes from not having seen her in nine years. The choice of name for Helen’s character is curious, too, when viewed in the context of Ibsen’s play. In the Ibsen, ‘Helen’ is the Helmer’s maid and nanny to their children, just as she was to an infant Nora many years before. For Brookman and Sarks to call their new character ‘Helen’ – one who seems to be Nora’s last-resort friend and one who Torvald wouldn’t think to approach – seems clumsy and not clearly thought-out.
Sarks says this new play “asks what that slamming door means for us right now, in Sydney, in 2014.” Having seen Nora, I don’t think that question is ever answered, unless the answer is calling upon a former work-colleague in the middle of the night and talking aimlessly over a few too many glasses of tea and gin. Perhaps we’re not meant to be explicitly handed an answer on a silver platter, but for a play which is meant to be about “power and freedom,” about understanding Nora’s “decision, its germination and its consequences,” then I’m afraid it never really fulfils any of these promises, nor does it really come close. According to Sarks, Ibsen’s story – as much as Nora’s story – isn’t “just a story about women[;] it’s about power and openness. About fear and control and freedom. About relationships and duty and responsibility.” And it’s not just a relationship, duty and responsibility to ourselves as people, but as theatre-makers to your audiences. If you take a story like Ibsen’s, which has a hundred-and-thirty-five years of accumulated cultural ramifications and collateral, and spin a new story out of and from it, then it had better work just as well as the original did, if not better. Otherwise what are we saying – about ourselves, about our society, about our beliefs and standards?
I understand what Brookman and Sarks are trying to articulate in their Nora – it’s about the ceilings and doors and walls which close in on us, in our lives, relationships, consciously and/or unnoticed, and how whether we like it or not, we are still living in a male-dominated society. I get that. Alarmingly, none of that has changed very much since Ibsen was writing; we’re still searching for the freedom, the breath and air and ability to make our own ways through life, and many of us are still no better than the Torvald’s, Krogstad’s or Rank’s that Ibsen wrote. But I don’t think this play comes close to living up to the promise it held twelve months ago. Distant and cold, unemotional, flat, empty and hollow, it’s a dangerous thing when you don’t feel anything or care much for any character on stage. “In some ways it would be easier to watch a traditional A Doll’s House,” Sarks says, and I can’t help but agree. While we haven’t seen that ‘traditional’ production in Sydney yet (although, truly, what is traditional but an anachronistic attempt at theatrical fidelity to a time and place no longer our own but preserved in a kind of heightened nostalgic amber), a ‘traditional’ Doll’s House is not “easier to watch” than this Nora because it is further from us. The power of a ‘traditional’ Doll’s House comes from the fact we have not really changed anywhere half as much as we’d like to think we have in one-hundred-and-thirty-five years. Yes, there is more gender equality in workplaces, but still nowhere near enough. There is still a power in Ibsen’s play to shock us, if only it could be unlocked and brought to light.
The worrying trend of updating classic texts into a distinctly (banal) Australian milieu is the implied assumption that an audience can only relate to a play – to its characters and story – if it is set here, now, in our contemporary society. But that’s not true at all, and it’s rather patronising to an audience; If you interrogate a ‘classic’ text and create a new work from or out of it, it’s because you’ve been inspired or had a reaction to it; it’s because you’ve recognised there’s a power there that cannot be ignored. By contextualising or adapting it into the modern day, however, you simultaneously deny an audience the power to similarly connect with the story. We produce these classic texts at regular intervals because they are still relevant to us, here, now. If you have characters on stage simply talking about issues in a play, then you create emotional and physical distance, and that’s not something you particularly want to strive for (or perhaps it is, but that doesn’t seem like theatre to me). More often than not, these classic plays have lasted because they are compelling, we see ourselves reflected in them in all our complexity, and we are deeply moved by them. To sacrifice compelling characters and stories for the sake of a discussion about an issue seems trivial but it is not something that should be done lightly simply because you want to say something about our contemporary society; sometimes the best way to make a statement is through producing a ‘classic’ text unadulterated by recontextualisation or adaptation. “The experience of recognising something on stage from your own life can be difficult, but that difficulty is also an opportunity. Theatre should be a platform for questions,” Sarks says, and I agree. But in the case of Nora, I still have many questions, nowhere near enough answers.
The future, unlike what Nora believes, is not dark, but a great huge bright light staring us in the face, daring us to step into it and embrace it. It is ours to make of it what we can, and make it better. For us, and for everyone.

Theatre playlist: 46. She’s Leaving Home, The Beatles

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