‘The emptiest experience I’ve had in a theatre this year’: Alison Croggon on Lucas Hnath’s A Doll’s House Part 2
Theatre has made me well used to what Michael Billington once memorably termed “mutinous isolation”: sitting among a rapturously applauding audience as a personal black cloud rains down on my lonely crrrritic’s brow. I had an acute case of the black clouds at the end of the Melbourne Theatre Company’s production of Lucas Hnath’s A Doll’s House Part 2.
It was a first night crowd, of course, which means enthusiastic; but I had spent the previous 90 minutes rolling my eyes so hard I thought I would pass out. The tickertape rattling through my brain was indistinguishable from your average tweedy curmudgeon bewailing the current state of decay. “Doesn’t anyone know what drama is any more?” “So this is what passes for playwriting in the US these days?” But mostly: “KILL ME NOW”.
The variation of possible response is one of the things that makes live performance so interesting: you can rub elbows with another person, both of you experiencing exactly the same stimuli in real time, and emerge with polar opposite reactions. We all bring our subjectivities to any communal space along with our bodies (if we don’t, what’s the point?) But even given this, sometimes I am incredulous.
This was one of those times. A Doll’s House Part 2 was the emptiest experience I’ve had in a theatre this year. It was a total waste of the talent thrown at it – and there was considerable talent, including Marta Dusseldorp and Greg Stone, two of our finest stage actors. It’s a zombie play, a text that lacks any visible sign of life except for the brains – both Ibsen’s and the creative team’s – that it parasitically devours.
I’m hardly averse to the idea of taking a classic text and doing rude things to it. It’s been a commonplace of recent Australian theatre, from Simon Stone’s rewritings of Chekhov or Ibsen, or – particularly pertinent to this production – Daniel Schlusser’s 2007 and 2011 versions of A Doll’s House and Adena Jacobs’ acute queer take on Hedda Gabler. In different ways, these directors re-situated the original texts as reflections of contemporary society, intelligently unstitching and restitching Ibsen’s dramaturgy and thought to bring us an Ibsen cleared of cultural fog, at once more intimately familiar, and more strange.
Hnath has instead written a fanfic, his Fifty Shades of Grey to Ibsen’s Twilight. He’s inverted Ibsen’s naturalism, in which everyday action is the mechanic that reveals underlying social problems: in this play, everything that happens on stage is what the characters are telling you is happening. It’s a play with absolutely no subtext whatsoever. I’m not familiar with Hnath’s other plays, although A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay about the Death of Walt Disney was recently performed in Melbourne; but this lack of subtext is, I think, Hnath’s nod to American experimentalism. Or at least, I hope it is. It effectively means that only one thing is ever occuring at a time, which makes it reeeaaalllly boring to watch.
The usual point of displacing audience expectations is, à la Brecht, to make us step back and consider what we have seen. As Hnath himself says, “I want the audience to engage with the thinking, with the reasoning.” In particular, it seems, he wants us to think about feminism. But the thinking in this particular text is a regurgitation of a bunch of banal speculations about gender and relationships that shifts uneasily and without nuance between the 19th century and now.
The conceit is that Nora (Marta Dusseldorp) returns 15 years after her famously scandalous door-slamming exit. There is a big door, the focus of the entire design, to remind us of it. Josh Burns’ video, projected above Tracy Grant Lord’s chocolate box set, is also there to remind us about the Door: after some live footage of the audience coming in (it’s about us!) the play begins with Nora approaching the house and peering through the post box, and finishes with her exit as she wanders through the fjords.
Nora, we learn through some heavy-handed exposition, has had no contact with her husband Torvald (Greg Stone) or her children, who have been raised by the nanny Anne-Marie (Diedre Rubenstein). She has spent these years living her Best Feminist LifeTM, and “doing very well”. Under a pseudonym, she has written a series of popular books that sound rather like Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room, in particular attacking the insitutiton of marriage, and has made a bunch of money.
Like A Doll’s House, the plot turns on a legal question: Nora has returned because one of the many women who took her advice and fled their empty marriages was married to a judge, who decided to take his ire out on Nora. He has discovered her real identity and now is threatening to doxx her. It turns out that Torvald never served the divorce papers, so they are still technically married, which voids her profitable contracts and makes her liable for fraud, and also puts Torvald in charge of her fortune. So now she must persuade him to serve the papers.
It’s hard to believe that a Nora who was previously blackmailed by a man over a forged document would be so careless of details like divorce papers, but whatever. But Torvald’s reasons for refusing the divorce begin to stretch the limits of credulity: to do so would expose him to fraud charges, because he has been accepting a widower’s gratuity.
The convoluted plotting, dodgy as it is, is merely the line on which the various characters hang their flags. In monologues and dialogues the various members of this estranged family – Nora, Torvald, the nanny Anne-Marie and her adult daughter Emmy (Zoe Terakes) – discuss the pros and cons of Nora’s decision from their various points of view exactly as if they were undergraduates in a debating hall. It’s as if things like freedom or oppression are merely abstract ideas; they never become realities that shape and deform real lives and bodies.
As the play continues it appears (surprise!) that feminism is unfulfilling and empty, after all: perhaps Nora’s decision to leave her husband and children for her Best Feminist Life was less courageous than it would have been to stay and work things out with her husband. Torvald is shown here as the unambiguous victim of her decision. He has never remarried: in fact, he is so emotionally scarred he won’t even contemplate getting a dog, because one day he might have to put it down.
In A Doll’s House, Nora’s reasons for leaving are rather more complicated than those presented in this sequel. (In any case, for my money, Ibsen’s revelation of Torvald’s hypocrisy and cruelty as a petit bourgeois paterfamilias is a deeper blow than Nora’s exit, and perhaps was the real insult to the mores of the time.) Hnath’s Nora has left in a very 21st century pursuit of self-fulfilment and material autonomy, after eight years of stifling marriage. Ibsen’s Nora is rather a woman who sees, in a moment of pressure, the truth of her relationship to Torvald, and recoils in moral horror at both herself and her husband.
As they both are, she tells him, she cannot contemplate being married: “a real wedlock” would require an unimaginable change, “the most wonderful thing of all”. In short, she doesn’t reject marriage per se: she rejects what marriage becomes in a society where qualities like honour and reason are forbidden to women.
But trying to make sense of one play through the other ends up being a defeating exercise. Basically, A Doll’s House Part 2 reads as a revisionist argument about a strawman view of feminism, embodied in a characterisation of Nora which only passes muster if you don’t remember Part 1.
Hnath might have got away with it had his characters had any feeling of the “flesh and blood” he says he aims to create, presumably through his use of contemporary language and the odd expletive. No flesh and blood person actually talks or reacts like these automatons. (If they do, I certainly don’t want to meet them). It throws a lot of pressure on the cast to make them in any way plausible.
The only actor who manages to kick some life into the text is Greg Stone, who plays the surface so that sometimes it glints into an ironic humour. Dusseldorp, Rubenstein and Terakes, fine actors all, end up doing a lot of emoting to make up for the missing subtext. Sarah Goodes directs it, or seems to direct it, as a drama, which I think is a misjudgement: it was billed as a comedy in New York. Perhaps the flat dialogue might have been less irritating if it had been presented as a satire of Ibsen, which is the only way I can make sense of this text. But even then, the paucity of this play’s ideas is maddening: you prod them and they deflate with a stale hiss. It reminds me of nothing so much as DH Lawrence’s diatribe, How Beastly the Bourgeois Is:
Nicely groomed, like a mushroom
standing there so sleek and erect and eyeable –
and like a fungus, living on the remains of a bygone life
sucking his life out of the dead leaves of greater life
than his own.
A Doll’s House Part 2 by Lucas Hnath, directed by Sarah Goodes. Sets and costumes by Tracy Grant Lord, lighting by Niklas Pajanti, composition and sound design by Chris Williams, video by Josh Burns. Performed by Marta Dusseldorp, Deidre Rubenstein, Greg Stone and Zoe Terakes. Melbourne Theatre Company until September 15. Bookings
Contains coarse language. For detailed information about the production’s content click here.
Southbank Theatre is wheelchair accessible and accepts Companion Cards.
Audio described and tactic tours: Tuesday 28 August, 6.30pm and Saturday 1 September, 4pm
Captioned performance: Thursday 30 August 8pm
For more information, contact the MTC via email@example.com or 03 8688 0800