Nora at the Dublin Theatre Festival
by Belinda McKeon
The Corn Exchange
Project Arts Centre, Dublin
7 October 2017
It's not uncommon for Ibsen to be updated to reflect moderns concerns in contemporary society. His themes and observations remain incisive and relevant not just as a reflection of society but also in how people behave within its unwritten rules and conventions. Inspired by A Doll's House, Belinda McKeon's Nora, created in collaboration with Annie Ryan for the Corn Exchange's at the 60th Dublin Theatre Festival, rather ambitiously sets out to not just rework the themes of Ibsen's play for the way we live today, but by setting it in 2025 it also looks towards where me might be heading as a society and as a people.
Whether it achieves that, or whether Nora does indeed extend on Ibsen's themes successfully is certainly up for debate and discussion, but there's little question it lays out the play's essential themes well. Although set in the near future, Nora does successfully highlight contemporary questions of class, society and inequality, particularly in relation to women and their place within a marriage. We would like to think that a woman's place in society is different today from how it was in Ibsen's time (A Doll's House was first presented in Norway in 1879), and McKeon's version certainly takes account of that by trying to reflect many additional modern concerns, while showing that they each still have their own in-built issues.
As far as Nora is concerned in this production, she is to all appearances a successful woman on her own terms, the owner of a successful art gallery, or at least one equal half of a successful partnership in an enterprise that she shares with her husband Turlough. In fact, it was Nora's investment that got the business on its feet, finding the capital to get it started through the sale of a rare artwork, and it was her strength and determination that kept things going when her husband was ill. It's only when some unexpected guests arrive bringing problems that she as to reconcile with Turlough that Nora realises that she is not really on an equal footing with her husband after all.
About to host an important party, Nora encounters a few old faces from the past who arrive as uninvited guests. Krista is an artist and old friend of both Nora and Turlough who has come seeking asylum from a deteriorating political situation that is increasingly hostile towards her. She has left her agent and hopes that Nora and Turlough might take her on and represent her work. Kroger, a disreputable art dealer who has been involved in a scandal, also wants Nora to speak to her husband and give endorsement to his new venture, threatening blackmail over the dubious authenticity of the rare painting he provided that got Nora's business started. Then there's Ron, the somewhat dissolute designer of her new gallery extension who has 'designs' elsewhere.
If that were all there was to Nora, the Corn Exchange production would be a clever if fairly superficial updating of Ibsen's A Doll's House; well-directed and performed in a way that lays out the implications of the situation and the nature of the characters very clearly in a contemporary manner. There is an effort however to extend Ibsen's themes further in Nora's near-future setting. There are no real technological advances explored here and only vague references to current political tensions, but rather it darkly hints at a world that has gone to ruin. The gallery appears to be three levels down, with the city divided into zones of varying social status. The city that Krista has felt forced to leave is one that has grown dangerous and intolerant; McKeon extending Ibsen's view on treatment of women here to include a woman who is black, an outspoken artist and a lesbian. How necessary that is debatable - particularly when it's revealed that Nora and Krista were once lovers - but the issues and reconfiguration don't over-complicate or negate the original intentions of the play.
Nora however is not just a reaction to current events, a reflection of where we are now as a society that is intolerant and where inequalities still exist, but rather the updating of Ibsen's play also tries to extend that view to where this might lead. That's more evident in the greater role that Nora's daughter Emmy plays in this version of the work, and Venetia Bowe's superb performance brings out a number of other suggestions and implications. Emmy is another version of Nora, or a Nora split into two parts. A 15 year old girl, she is talented, outspoken, resourceful and aware of the nature of the world, but it's she who has been brought up in a doll's house, safely closeted away and oblivious to the realities of the world; her actual experience of it not extending beyond the search engine and social media on her hand-held device. When Ron makes his play for Nora in this adaptation, it's for the child version, and that alters the whole tone of the work.
It's not obvious that the 2025 setting of Nora really contributes much more than suggesting the rather obvious "this is the world we are creating for our children" moral, but there's perhaps a little more to it than that. Nora appears to be treated as an equal and has all the trappings and manners of a successful career - although she has clearly had to work twice as hard to get there - but the reality of her position is revealed to be very different. A lot of things have been left unspoken, but the greatest unspoken rule is that it's a man's world operating to men's rules and Nora's appearance of success is still very much dependent on their indulgence. Society might appear to have been moved on and been rebuilt in 2025, but the underlying hierarchical model remains the same. Nora is only starting to realise how false her position is, but by failing to acknowledge that she has in reality been living in a doll's house, she has perpetuated the lie and left her daughter in an even more precarious position. Nora and Krista have had to fight just to get the outward appearance of independence, but Emmy doesn't even have that. Completely unaware of the great unspoken rule, Emmy is about to be awakened to its realities, and frighteningly, holding her tongue about it as well.
Emmy - Venetia Bowe
Turlough - Declan Conlon
Kroger - Peter Gaynor
Ron - Chris McHallern
Krista - Clare Perkins
Nora - Annie Ryan