The creative process behind Nora: A Doll’s House

Nora: A Doll's House
Image by Mihaela Bodlovic

Our Citizens Women season kicked off earlier this month with a radical new version of A Doll's House. In Stef Smith's empowering adaptation, she revisits Ibsen's iconic play through the experiences of three different Noras, over three different time periods.  

Our Assistant Director Jo Bowman recently ran a Q&A with some Higher Drama students. After watching the show, they discussed the key themes and ideas of the play, as well as how the production came together in the rehearsal room:

What would you consider the main theme?

For me, Nora: A Doll’s House is about many things; Stef Smith hasn’t limited the scope of the play to focus on one main theme. However, the themes that ping out as particularly central to my reading and understanding of the play are those of love, loneliness, and gendered roles and expectations.   

Anna Russell-Martin, Molly Vevers and Maryam Hamidi in Nora: A Doll's House.
Image by Mihaela Bodlovic

What would you say the purpose of this play is?

I’m not sure there is a singular purpose of the play. I think at its core it tells a thrilling and relevant story – a story that reverberates through time and demands to be told today. Without spoiling the ending, I think it can be seen as both a rousing call to arms (the fight for gender equality rages on) and an explicit moment of female solidarity. Depressingly, there is still something striking – albeit also inspiring and exciting – about putting a woman’s story on stage and I think there is a sense that this production of this play exists not only to tell this wonderful story but also as a demonstration that women’s stories belong on stage, and have belonged on stage for a long time.

Can you say something about how the set design served the play and its themes?

The form of the play – that is three time periods sitting on top of one another – means the piece is a particularly demanding one when it comes to the visual choices the production team made. At its simplest, the set (designed by the wonderful Tom Piper) is three stage spaces on top of each other, which directly mirrors the form of the play. It was also important that the stage space could exist in each of the time periods (1918, 1968, 2018) so the chairs had to be selected to fit into a multitude of different times. In a play about being trapped, having a stage space dominated by three door frames offers a tantalising means of escape; by physically showing the way out of the space, the potential for Nora to leave hangs over the play throughout.

The stage is dominated by three door frames.
Image by Mihaela Bodlovic

How the costumes and hairstyles chosen fitted the historical context and how they linked the three Nora characters thematically?

The costumes chosen (again by our designer Tom Piper) act as a visual representation of the time period each Nora occupies: Maryam Hamidi has a beehive-esque hairstyle to suggest the 60s, just as Molly Vevers’ Nora is in a long skirt which indicates the 1910s. However, the demands of each actor not only playing Nora but also playing Christine in a different time period meant we also had to find a visual language to help with these transitions. The green scarf worn when each actor is playing Christine is a simple visual cue to assist with the story telling of the multi-roling.

The costumes help distinguish between the different eras.
Image by Mihaela Bodlovic

How the lighting helped the audience understand the mood of the moment or the action / interaction?

The lighting design (by Olivier-nominated Lee Curran) is central to both the story telling and emotional journey of the play. Each time period has its own colour and the colours change depending on if the story is happening in 1918, 1968, or 2018. There are also subtler shifts in the brightness of the lighting depending on the emotional state of the characters. For stylised moments such as the dance scene, the lighting is designed to be just as dramatic and striking as the direction and text of the play.

Lee Curran's atmospheric lighting enhances the storytelling and emotional journey of the play.
Image by Mihaela Bodlovic

How sound was used to emphasise moments which were particularly important and related to the main themes or issues?

Created by MJ McCarthy in the rehearsal room, the sound and music were designed to complement the emotional journey of the play. It also helps us tell the story of the play: the Noras have a chord that is played when the play fractures into their monologues and poetic sections. The sound is also used to mark the shifts in time: we found a combination of strong physicality from the actors, a lighting shift, and a sound moment an effective and precise way of jumping between 1918, 1968, and 2018 in a matter of seconds.

Can you say anything about why the writer, director, cast and you felt it was important to do this play, like this, now?

For me, Ibsen’s plays – particularly A Doll’s House – are some of the best-written and exciting theatrical stories that exist. The richness of the stories mean they are ripe for adaptation, updating, and re-examining, three things Stef has done with Nora: A Doll’s House. Politically it feels like we are at something of a turning point when it comes to our understanding of gender (as I am sure it did in 1918 and 1968 as well) and it feels like there is a move to centre women’s stories on our stages. A Doll’s House is a compelling and shocking story and Stef’s adaptation, as brought to life by Elizabeth’s production, has not only pulled this story into the twenty-first century but also taken the politics of the original and explored them further. This version feels urgent but also timeless, which is why it is a powerful and radical adaptation of a play that already has drive and clout to it.