In conversation with Tom Piper, Designer of Nora: A Doll's House

Nora: A Doll's House is a radical retelling of Ibsen's classic play. Stef Smith's lyrical script sets the drama against three time periods, challenging the idea that society has come a long way. During rehearsals, we caught up with Designer Tom Piper to find out how he approaches staging such a poetic play.

Tom Piper

What attracted you to this project?

I always enjoy collaborating with the Citz team and find it a very creative environment in which to work. I was also attracted to the reworking of the play and the storytelling challenges Stef’s version gives us. I've worked with Elizabeth Freestone (Director) before and knew that it would be an exciting open discussion on how we might stage the play.
Can you give us an idea of what the set for Nora: A Doll's House will look like? Where did you draw your inspiration from?

I always begin with the theatre space. Tramway is configured in a thrust (as it was for Cyrano de Bergerac last year) so I knew that the space had to work well from three sides. This also meant I was free from creating a more conventional, naturalistic space.

The thrust stage at Tramway
In the play Nora remains in her home environment throughout and I wanted it to have a sense of homeliness but abstracted. The play explores both the comfort and confinement of a domestic space, how our need for love and approval within a domestic relationship can easily become a relationship based on control and lies. We also wanted to find a way to suggest the sense of the outside world, the frozen river and the sense of possibilities for Nora beyond the ‘haven' of the home.

I also needed to find a way that the actors could shift easily from naturalistic scenes to more choral moments and so started exploring a series of layered stages and framing ceiling elements. We looked at a range of images from each era to try and define what the world of each Nora might be. I also looked at various contemporary artists such as Rachel Whiteread and Gordon Matta Clark, whose exploration of space inspires me in very different ways.

Rachel Whitehead's statue at Trafalgar Square
The play is set over three different time periods, 1918, 1968 and 2018. What are the challenges of that?

The three periods overlap, glitch and cross cut, sometimes in just a moment. Whilst I began thinking that the design could perhaps indicate which period we are in, it soon became clear that part of the power of the play is the layering of time and events in the same space. This means the main living room has to be the centre of the world for all three Noras. We do have three different door frames in the space, which I imagine might initially be used for each Nora’s entrance thereby defining that frame as a portal into their era. But that idea might be unnecessary or too prescriptive - we will see how it develops in rehearsals!

The rehearsal room with the three door frames
Image (C) Mihaela Bodlovic

We are currently experimenting with how clothes can help tell us which era we are in. This is particularly complicated as each actress plays a Nora and also a Christine in a different period! I am searching for a look for each of them which can be quite fluid in period. Perhaps it will be the coats that characters wear to enter or leave the space that give us the strongest clue as to what year we are in.

The rehearsal room is full of images from 1918, 1968 and 2018. This has helped inspire the design.
Image (C) Mihaela Bodlovic

In the end I hope the effect will be a kaleidoscopic fracturing of the play -  in which each era talks to the other and we can see how the different social mores of the time affect how Nora behaves and ultimately leads to three very different endings. 

How does your original vision when you first read the play match-up with the end result on stage? Does the rehearsal room process impact on the design?

I didn’t have an instant design in my head, as the play offered no easy answers. In many ways I am searching for a way to present the play that can have the same playful freedom of a rehearsal room. The challenge is adding just enough design elements to help with the narrative without forcing an interpretation on the piece.

Through my sketches and initial models I was looking at how I might create an almost cubist layering of spaces and had matching floors and ceilings layered onto each other. In the end that felt too literal so instead I have created a central square - almost like a boxing ring - sitting on top of other layers. Hopefully this will allow a more fluid use of the stage as the actors can rapidly enter or leave the main space or comment from the sides. Through rehearsals the actors have improvised a lot of the spaces that are referred to in the play but never seen, such as the bank or pharmacy, and have also created their own versions of the living room in each era. I think this will help inform a lot of their choices and how the characters interact in each era and environment.

Some of the cast in rehearsals
Image (C) Mihaela Bodlovic

This is a bold new adaptation of a classic play. Is that reflected in the design at all?

It is very stripped back and so I hope it will put the focus onto the actors and their characters' stories rather than relying on the design to illustrate the play for us.
Is there anything else you'd like to add? 
It might all change!

15 March - 6 April