The Minimalist Remodeling of ‘A Doll’s House’

A new adaptation of the Ibsen classic, starring Jessica Chastain, is stripped down to its bare bones to reveal the play’s central spirit

BY Rhoda Feng in Reviews , US Reviews | 06 APR 23

The year ‘1879’ is projected onto the upper half of a black wall. As the audience trickles in, the star with fiery red hair slouches on a chair that sits on a turntable rotating at a snail’s pace, like the pointer of a huge clockface. Dressed fashionably in dark blue (styled by costume designers Soutra Gilmour and Enver Chakartash), she could be one of Anton Chekhov’s characters mourning for her life, but this is Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (1879), whose protagonist waits and waits for her life to begin. For 105 well-paced minutes, we wait with her, too, though most of us in the audience already know how it all ends.

Amy Herzog, 2023. Photograph: Sam Gold

This new, stripped-down version of Ibsen’s play by American playwright Amy Herzog, which opened last month at the Hudson Theatre, is Jessica Chastain’s second Broadway appearance (her first was in Moisés Kaufman’s production of The Heiress in 2012). Playing the role of Nora Helmer, in which the protagonist progresses from cossetted wife to independent thinker, has always been a juicy prospect for actors: Gillian Anderson, Eleanor Duse, Jane Fonda, Janet McTeer, and Liv Ullmann have all taken on the part. That bold-faced names have previously inhabited the role makes Chastain no less odd a choice:  one of Hollywood’s most bankable actors is cast as a woman whom Ibsen, in a letter of 1880, referred to as ‘a big, grown-up child who has to go out into life to discover herself.’ Part of the frisson for audiences, of course, hinges on having to suspend their disbelief. (If you enjoy suspending yours from a chandelier, this is the play for you.)

Jessica Chastain and Okieriete Onaodowan in A Doll’s House, 2023. Photograph: Emilio Madrid

Herzog’s script – compacted and slightly modernized – notes that the action ‘takes place in the Helmers’s home’, but nothing on Jamie Lloyd’s barren set suggests a domicile. Ibsen’s script traditionally calls for a piano, armchairs, table, sofa, stove, rocking chair and various objets d'art,but these furnishings are nowhere to be seen. Lloyd is known for his starkly dematerialized productions – he directed a similarly fuss-free adaptation of Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac (1897) last year at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. While some have criticized this simplified approach, the decision is no mere gimmick. Lloyd works in a long tradition of European modernists with an anti-naturalistic bent, producing radically deconstructed plays that are less adaptations than ‘quotations’ of Ibsen, as some scholars have called them. In 1906, Vsevolod Meyerhold’s Symbolical Theatre mounted a production of A Doll’s House that distiled the play to its barest elements to better evoke the ‘inner spirit’ of the work. Ingmar Bergman’s 1989 revival of the play at the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm similarly dispensed with period detail and the requirements of Stanislavski realism.

Arian Moayed and Jessica Chastain in A Doll’s House, 2023. Courtesy: A Doll’s House / DKC/O&M

It has been fashionable for some time now to think of A Doll’s House as a proto-feminist tract,  a near contemporary of John Stuart Mill’s 1869 essay ‘The Subjection of Women’. Yet, as the critic Richard Gilman noted in his book The Making of Modern Drama (1974), ‘our habit of looking at Ibsen not as an artist but as a sort of grim (or splendid) fulminator, an ideologue, or, at the lowest, a designer of problematic living rooms, a theatrical upholsterer, has prevented us from seeing how in his plays specific ideas or issues conceal truer, more permanent subjects.’ One way to test this proposition, then, is to strip away those ‘problematic living rooms’. This Lloyd has done, and then some: in this production, the Helmers’s children – Ivar, Bob, and Emmy – are also rendered all but notional. We hear their voices offstage and, in one scene, a game of hide-and-seek is telegraphed by the dimming of lights (Jon Clark did the lighting design). It’s no doubt a risky choice – for some, the stakes of Nora walking out of her marriage will seem oddly low if she has already lost some vital connection with her unseen children. The technique pays dividends, though, in dusting off other truths, like the idea that the key to a long-lasting marriage may be a willful blindness to a spouse’s faults. Under Lloyd’s surehanded direction, this Doll’s House is a ruthless look at a couple misunderstanding each other by millimetres and miles.

Jessica Chastain in A Doll’s House, 2023. Courtesy: A Doll’s House / DKC/O&M

For a while, Nora is content to indulge her husband’s infantilizing tendencies. Torvald Helmer (played by Arian Moaye) has the slimfit charm of a car salesman, referring repeatedly to his wife as his ‘songbird’ and ‘Birdie.’ It’s quickly revealed, though, that Nora’s no profligate housewife. As she confides to her childhood friend Kristine Linde (Jesmille Darbouze), she has been saving half of her allowance and working long hours as a copyist in order to pay off a loan that she secured to save her husband’s life. To obtain that loan, she forged her father’s signature on a promissory note. It is this secret that becomes an albatross, threatening to upset the delicate equilibrium of her domestic life. At first, she doesn’t think of her act as a crime, but Nils Krogstad (Okieriete Onaodowan), the lawyer she has technically defrauded, not only mansplains to her what a loan is, but blackmails her in the process. On pain of revealing her secret, Krogstad wants Nora to use her ‘influence’ with Torvald, a soon-to-be manager at the Savings Bank, to allow him to keep his job. By his lights, what Nora has done is ‘more or less the same crime I committed years ago, the one that ruined my reputation and my life.’

From that moment on, there’s a subtle shift in the play’s internal weather: an anticipatory feeling of dread stalls like a storm cloud over a desolate landscape. For almost the entire play, Chastain’s Nora sits rooted to her chair; she even ‘dances’ (or emotes to) her famous tarantella while seated, limbs flailing wildly as she enters a state of seizure. In most productions, Nora’s hair falls down as she dances, but Chastain’s version is no maenad; her flaming hair stays half-swept up behind her ears as she dances her dance of ‘life or death’. ‘Look at me!’ she cries to Kristen, and we do. It’s impossible not to; in that moment, we realize that what initially looked like paralysis was something else entirely: the pose of a woman waiting for her resolve to ripen.

A Doll’s House is playing at the Hudson Theater in New York until 10 June 2023.

Main image: Okieriete Onaodowan and Jessica Chastain in A Doll’s House, 2023. Courtesy: A Doll’s House / DKC/O&M

Rhoda Feng writes about theater and books for 4Columns, The Baffler, The White Review, The New Republic, The Nation, and The New York Times, among other publications.