Dublin Theatre Festival 2017: Nora
Privileged History Repeating Itself
In the year 2025, in the home of art dealer Turlough, his wife Nora, and their fifteen-year-old daughter, Emmy, Nora’s past is about to unexpectedly come calling looking for invitations to the party. Both the real party in their home that night, and the bigger party enjoyed by the elite of the art scene. Indeed, her past calls twice, in quick succession. Former friend from when they both started out, radical artist, Krista, is in need of a sponsor. If it’s never entirely clear why she needs a new sponsor, she hopes Turlough might take her on. The disgraced art dealer, Kroger, is also looking for Nora’s help. Except he brings with him leverage and a deadline courtesy of a damning secret he has hanging over Nora. Meanwhile, family friend and gallery designer Ron, loving them all dearly, might just show what his love looks like when the alcohol hits. As the night moves on Nora must try manipulate Turlough, without his knowledge, to save the privileged life they have. But is it a life worth saving, or is it just privileged history repeating itself, making yet another deal with a different devil?
“Nora,” by Belinda McKeon, in collaboration with Annie Ryan, takes its name, and frame, from Ibsen’s seminal masterpiece A Doll’s House. Essentially A Doll’s House reimagined with a dystopian edge, “Nora” takes the basic structure, throws in a few twists and a futuristic setting, and wraps it all up with an alternate ending. But despite an engaging, if contrived plot, “Nora” often asks too much of its audience. With barely a moment to catch your breath, “Nora” delivers not one, but two obvious and unconvincing contrivances; coincidental arrivals that make everything that follows feel forced. A situation not helped by a barely articulated, dystopian context. “Nora” might claim its dystopian universe explores the modern threat to civil liberties in a post truth world, but that’s a case it fails to convincingly make, its dystopia being so underdeveloped as to be practically non-existent. Instead, it feels like an easy, and unconvincing device to recreate A Doll's House's, 19th century context; a society where women were solely dependent on men.
If its incidental characters are often strongly fleshed out, the script poorly serves the central character of Nora. Though we’re told she has a complicated history, there’s nothing Nora shows, says, or even hints at, to make that believable. Indeed, it’s almost as if the characters are talking about someone else entirely. If that's the point, it’s a point poorly made, compounded by the decision to divide Ibsen’s original character across an older Nora and a younger Emmy, with the younger having most of the more interesting attributes. Indeed, the older Nora often resembles Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway more than Ibsen’s original. Yet where Mrs. Dalloway questioned the loss of her soul, Nora is prepared to sell hers to keep her privilege.
If this divided Nora is a big ask for the audience, it's an even bigger ask for the actor. Perhaps that’s why Annie Ryan as Nora never looks entirely at ease, with the underdeveloped, older Nora, on the page, being something neither Ryan, nor director Eoghan Carrick, ever fully get to grips with. Yet those times when they do, as in Nora's confrontation with Turlough, Ryan delivers some deeply engaging moments bristling with energy. Emmy, beautifully realized by Venetia Bowe, is a breathe of fresh air as a younger Nora. Embodying all the innocence of Ibsen’s original, Bowe is astonishingly engaging as the vulnerable, fifteen-year-old gazelle, objectified for the sexual gaze by her compliant mother, doomed by her own powerlessness. Declan Conlon’s Turlough is wonderfully realised, with Conlon being consistently strong throughout. As are Peter Gaynor as Kroger, Chris McHallem as Ron, and Clare Perkins as Krista, rounding out a talented cast who do astonishing work with a script that doesn’t serve them quite as well as it should have.
With its title, and central action, linking faithfully to Ibsen’s A Dolls House, it’s impossible to separate “Nora” into a stand-alone work. Indeed, its strongest parts are those that come closest to the plot and themes of Ibsen's original. When “Nora” directly and honestly deals with the family dynamic at the heart of the script, raising questions about the children left behind, the privilege of parents, the demands placed on women, and the complications of relationships, “Nora” crackles with incredible power. Indeed, this is a “Nora” you want to see more off. But not in some repackaged 19th century passed off as a dystopia. For “Nora” is much more satisfying, and much more powerful, when it dispenses with artificial frames of above and below, or getting lost in its unconvincing, dystopian art world. A pretend world far less satisfying, or scary, than the one we currently inhabit.
If its tale of art world wheelers and dealers makes some big asks of its audience that don’t all pay off, there’s still enough in “Nora” to get it across the finish line with a bronze, or possibly even a silver. If the ending isn’t exactly believable, or satisfying, it might well have more to do with what’s not there, and with what shouldn’t be there. Even so, there’s enough borrowed from Ibsen, and enough clever twists, to make “Nora” into a genuinely engaging experience. One made all the more enjoyable by some strong performances. If “Nora” shifts Ibsen's A Doll's House into the realm of the melodramatic, feeling like an enjoyable soap opera with a dark twist, it only serves to make “Nora” something of a curious pleasure. An incomplete and problematic pleasure, but a pleasure none-the-less.
“Nora,” by Belinda McKeon in collaboration with Annie Ryan, produced by Corn Exchange, runs at The Project Arts Centre as part of Dublin Theatre Festival 2017 until October 8th