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Belvoir presents, NORA, by Kit Brookman and Anne-Louise Sarks, after A DOLL’S HOUSE, by Henrik Ibsen, in the Upstairs Theatre, Belvoir St Theatre, Surry Hills. 13 August – 14 September.

This is a new Australian work written, jointly, by Kit Brookman and Anne-Louise Sarks, after, or, seemingly, instigated by reflections on A DOLL’S HOUSE by Henrik Ibsen. To diarise this new work, it might be more useful to ignore the Ibsen original (for a while), and just regard what we saw on stage. This is a two act play (with a 30 minute interval – to facilitate a scene change – modern times at Belvoir – the bar probably made a killing!) I attended a performance over a month ago, and had not really found the way to respond to the offer/the writing/the production. So, here then, are My Memory Impressions, and disquiet, and consequent disquisition.

ACT ONE: The production is set in 2014 in a bourgeois home of an aspirational lower class (though, distinctly white collar) Australian family. The Setting (Set Design by Marg Horwell) gives a partly realised furnishing of two bedrooms (parent’s and children’s), a minimal impression of a working kitchen, bathroom, and living room – there are NO design layers to show it as a lived in environment, instead, it impresses as a sterile space without the stamp of any of the people who live in it – no visual personality, distinction, of anyone in the house. The principal design concept was to present the internal walls of this house as metal frame-works – no walls or doors. I came to the conclusion that this is an intended as a ‘cage’ metaphor. That all of this is pulled down for a completely different look in the second act, is explanation for that extraordinarily long interval – not the bar profiteering.

Inside this cage is a family: Nora Helmer (Blazey Best), her husband, Torvald Helmer (Damien Ryan) and children, Emmy (either, Indianna Gregg or Ava Strybosch), and John (either, Toby Challenor or Finn Dauphinee). All of this family are caged, all trapped, all flitting (oops, sorry that’s Miss Julie), squirrelling through the usual activities of a contemporary family.

Nora appears to be in the midst of a nervous breakdown, robotically responding to her family appropriately, when required, and when alone, indulging in a blankness, with outbursts of weeping. I wondered, as her two children appeared to be of school age, what she did all day? Mope and cry? The house was so spare, housekeeping hardly seemed an issue. She had no modern media visible – it looked like a “cult” house, you know, The Brotherhood, The Exclusive Brethren, or something like that – so no outside-world distractions at all: no Oprah, Dr Phil, Judge Judy, When The World Turns, or whatever is the contemporary daytime television equivalent diversion for her to absorb the psycho-babble, to, perhaps, give some salve to her emotional state. In fact, I saw no books or social media equipment present, except the headphones belonging to her daughter? Was there a telephone? Did she own a mobile phone or computer to text or email? Had this Nora no internet savvy at all? Was there even a magazine? Had Nora no friends to come to visit her? No friends to visit, coffee with, talk about stuff, and to see that she was in personal difficulties, unwell, to offer advice? Had she no relatives she could visit, or, who might visit her, who would see her depressed state and offer aid? No spiritual advisor to turn to? Did she not know that there were social services available in 2014, to assist her? We later discover that she has ‘squirrelled’ away in savings some $9,000 odd dollars – why did she just not reach out for therapy, herself – visit a psychologist or psychiatrist? Perhaps, just medicate? Why didn’t she tell her husband of her difficulty, and ask him to attend family counselling with her?

Was this supposed to be set in August, 2014?

Now, I know of many women (and men) on the social, cultural and economic fringes of our world, who are unable to do any of this, even today, but none in the ‘given circumstances’ which Mr Brookman and Ms Sarks have written for this family and asked us to observe. The world that this Nora lives in, that the writers have given us, and for us to believe that she could not have found a solution other than the one she makes, the same one the famous Nora made in 1879, demands a fairly amazing suspension of disbelief. It is, after all, 2014!

Ms Sarks in her program notes tells us:

In 2014 Nora is a different woman. She’s older. She’s educated. She’s forged her own career and sacrificed it. She’s aware of her rights. She has far more power and freedom than Ibsen’s Nora.

And yet she finds herself, in Ms Sarks’ production, in 2014, in a relatively comfortable monetary circumstance, and trapped! And unlike the original Nora, she has not committed any criminal act, such as forgery and theft. Her principal act, that we learn of, was to marry Torvald without truly loving him, and have children – not a criminal act, in the order of Ibsen’s Nora, but, maybe, a very serious moral one. (Ibsen’s Nora, in the recent Adam Cook production emphasised the mutual love, a powerful sensual love attraction between wife and husband, as played by Matilda Ridgeway and Douglas Hansell) This Nora’s trap appears to be her choosing of marriage and motherhood over a professional career, and then, finds it was a mistake, and becomes unhappy – is it a kind of contemporary personal narcism, that she is suffering from, now? She has simply followed the dictates of her class in the conventional world, and got married, consummated her vows, and has produced children. She has done what society expected, and yet feels, what: cheated? unfulfilled? frustrated? with what has transpired? Did she not see the role models about her to warn her? Maybe, if she had used her ‘education’ to observe, rationalise and choose a life, exerted her ‘rights’, chose to use her ‘power’ and ‘freedom’ as a thinking human being, she could have made another choice? She did not, and apparently without any coercion, except social convention, made a choice (no doubt the wedding event had all the proper trappings and gifts), and subsequently appears to be experiencing a severe case of depression, post natal or otherwise – eight years of it ! “I should be happy, I deserve it, darling, don’t I? What should I do? I know, I’ll leave everything behind and find ‘freedom'”. That is my memory impression of this 2014 Nora, in this Belvoir production.

In the Belvoir Upstairs Theatre, this is a different Nora, indeed to Ibsen’s. She is older – but not wiser, it seems. She is educated – not that she has demonstrated much about what she knows, in what we learn of her history, or in the action of the play. She’s had begun a career, and sacrificed it – not that that is discussed in the first act, and when alluded to in the second act, turns out to be a delusional impression of achievement, and, so, not much of a realistic sacrifice. She is aware of her rights – but does not take advantage of their use. She has more power and freedom, and, yet, does not use them, with reason. This Nora’s conclusive decision, in her dilemma, in 2014, is the same as Ibsen’s Nora in 1879, and Mr Brookman and Ms Sarks has not shown us why that is so, convincingly enough, in this play, that that is the only choice she could have made, as Ibsen had done in his play.

“How does that happen?” asks Ms Sarks in her notes, that Nora makes the same choice. I really don’t know, and that’s why I’ve come to see the production of this new play, and for my money, and precious time, Ms Sarks as Director and writer, with her co-writer, have not done so. Instead, they just show us a figure already in the midst of a nervous breakdown, in which she appears to wallow. Now, I, fundamentally, agree that nothing much has changed, and that is why the recent production of Ibsen’s A DOLL’S HOUSE by Adam Cook, for the Sport For Jove company, at the Seymour Centre, was so modern and horribly relevant : a production, unadulterated in its period and intentions – so piercingly clear. This new work unfortunately adds nothing to supersede the modernity of the original.

Ms Best’s performance, in this first act, given the text, began in the middle of a breakdown mode and stayed there. Static. There was no dramatic development. It was simply a demonstration of an already arrived at self involved pre-occupation, of a woman who happened to be called Nora Helmer, in 2014, with too much time on her hands, and too insulated a point-of-view, that was too overtly, a morbid one. I was reminded of Anne Bancroft’s brilliant performance of a housewife in despair and breakdown, Jo Armitage, (for which she won the Cannes Best Actress Award) in the Jack Clayton/Harold Pinter, 1962 adaptation of Penelope Mortimer’s amazing novel, THE PUMPKIN EATER (1954), in which she revealed her character’s layers of skin peeling away under the duress of marriage, motherhood, (and monogamy) – a kind of involutional depression. Ms Best with this text opportunities, and direction, perforce gave us a fixed mask of despair with no subsequent reveal or incident cause – no under the skin revelations, just a one dimensional blazing surface tension. When this Nora, in modern dress (Costume Design by Mel Page), walked out the door at the end of act one, a conclusion we knew that was to be, (although there was, notably, no door slam, that could echo down the coming centuries), one did not really care. Knowing that there was another act to come I thought, “Thank god”, now we might get on with the reason for writing, directing, acting, and the designing of this production.

During the interval, oddly, I was really concerned, curious, as what was to happen to Torvald and the children. For, her husband, Torvald, in a subtly structured performance from Mr Ryan, appeared no less than Nora to be trapped in this cage of domesticity, and worse, trapped, just as truly, in a second cage, that of the Corporate world – of a demanding hierarchal social complexity – whilst attempting to ensure his duty, responsibility, to provide for his family. Such is the demand on Torvald, that he appears to be pre-occupied, constantly online and at work, even while at home. He, too, is isolated and simply robotic in his response to the demands of a family life, unthinkingly responding as best he can on both fronts of his life. He neither sees his wife’s catatonic state, or his personal neglect of his wife and family, or of himself and his perilous state as a human being. We sense some of Torvald’s outside life pressures that may have taken him to this deadened place, and have empathy – unlike the Nora, who has not had that opportunity to do so, because of the underwriting.

Surely, it is the system that they live in, in the social contract of the world about them that they,mindlessly, have surrendered to: CAPITALISM, that has them trapped in this cage of necessitous aspiration? The children, Emmy and John, are innocents being trained, indoctrinated by these parents, members of a ‘Stepford‘ world (1972 film), to become the children from The Village of The Damned (1960 film). They will become what they know: their parents, and the zombies of the New Age – on the Hamster Wheel of the conventions of the world that has been built by their forebears. This is what Ibsen was writing about, in varying ways, in all his plays – not feminism or patriarchal chauvinism (he said so) – but of the crippling social conventions of marriage and parenting and monogamy, that our society, through antiquated religious beliefs and tribal survival strategies/laws have constructed for everyman – female or male – so as to sustain, to preserve, what they have built through the centuries, and what we call civilisation. Heroes for Ibsen were not preservers of the system but iconoclasts who dared to confront it. That Nora and Hedda are women, simply underlines Ibsen’s belief, that everyman – everyman, human – can be a hero. Women, even, as equally as men, as Brand or Thomas Stockman, before them.

My recollection and impressions from ACT TWO: The setting now is that of an open kitchen area (well, a tap and an electric kettle that works!) backing a living area with a lounge, that unfolds into a bed, a chair and little side table, a lamp (?) This belongs to Helen (Linda Cropper), a work acquaintance of Nora’s. Ms Cropper gave a marvellous performance, considering the slightness of the writing offered her – a true miracle of creativity. Helen is an older figure, whom Nora admired in the office, the place of Nora’s time distanced, but fantasised career opportunities. (Thoughts that this remembrance of Nora’s for Helen, had a hint of a same sex attraction, crossed my mind – could that be Nora’s real problem? An unrequited, unrecognised sexual identity crisis?) They were not particularly close, but Nora has held her in high esteem, and in this present crisis in her life, vacating from her family, seeks her out, discovers her address across the other side of this city, and just turns up, out of the blue (excuse the unintended pun) and much to Helen’s disquieted surprise, for she has had no connection with her for some eight or so years. Helen seems to be progressively through the scene, puzzled, surprised, startled, bewildered, bemused, tentative, and/but reluctantly, co-operative and supportive, emotionally generous, to this relative stranger. For Nora’s, distress is, palpably, obvious, as it has always been to all of us, except to her husband and family (and friends!) . “Come in”, she invites.

We observe Helen at home at work with laptop and documents, and the arrival of Nora at her door. We watch Helen invite this relative stranger into the apartment/house. She makes her tea – we wait for the kettle to boil, durationally – later, an alcoholic drink, or two. We overhear Helen fending off the offer of a romantic visit from a gentlemen friend on the telephone, and her setting up a future date/meeting; we hear of her retirement from the workplace – a much changed workplace from the one Nora remembers  – the place where Nora and she had become acquainted and Nora asks to return to; we learn of Helen’s choice to leave her career at that office, to care for her dying son – for whom she had much feeling, and, now, is still grieving for.

Thus, we, with Nora, learn of a contemporary woman, who in her life in 2014, has managed to have it all, a career and a family – independence and sex. Of Helen, a woman using her ‘education’, awareness of ‘rights’, and ‘powers’, ‘freedoms’ to choose to live her life, well. An all that was, undoubtedly, negotiated, that has pros and cons for her, benefits and trials, but, essentially, one that has been a fulfilling one. As Nora expresses her naivety and reveals, unconsciously, her depressed obsessions about how the world works and functions, of the difficulties she has with her lot in life, Helen, literally, ‘rolls her eyes’ in surprise and wonder. Helen offers Nora a bed for the night – we watch the pair of them make the bed – with another, is it an avant-garde durational experiment? – and urges her to think about her choices, her actions. Nora lies alone in bed and in the dark conjures the figure of her daughter, Emmy, into her presence. There is an exchange between them, but, to be honest, I have no idea what transpired. When Nora lay on the bed in the dark, I almost took the cue to succumb to Morpheus, along with her, but in a separate dream state – my own morphia, of escape. All I noticed was that her younger son, John, was not conjured/present with his sister – and neither was Torvald. Hmmmm!

This is where, I thought, the play/the production ought to have begun with this present second act – after the famous re-enactment, echo, of the door exit. I thought how interesting it would be, to see, with a new second act, after this revelation of the successful negotiating of Helen’s life as a role model, not only what Nora had done, but, What Nora Did Next. Let’s see her ten years after this night of Nora’s crisis in action, at Helen’s place. Ten years after leaving her family and re-acquainting with Helen. What could she become? What has she become?

NO, that is not Mr Brookman and Ms Sarks concern. Rather, it was the further interminable acting out of Nora’s depressive state, for, what seemed like, ever more. So what these writer’s were about, had become, for me a distant concern, I was disconnected from any of the incidents of the play, by this time, and much like my experience of the Belvoir co-artistic director’s, Adena Jacob’s adaptation of HEDDA GABLER, a month or so ago, I couldn’t have cared less, except for the deep regret of the loss of my precious time, in this theatre, again. My fellow audience’s response was tepid in its appreciation. Some had even gotten up and left during the second act – it was during the bed making, I think – even, after waiting around in the foyer in that long interval, unlike others who had, opportunely, fled – emptied seats beside me. (Is that why some shows don’t have intervals – so we can’t escape without displaying, what some would believe to be rudeness. We are so bourgeois with our politeness, aren’t we? Not, all. Oh, how I,  admire them. Iconoclasts, indeed – Ibsen would have admired them.)

I don’t know what state the playwriting was in, what draft the program selectors at Belvoir read when they scheduled this play, or whether it was only an idea (like reportedly, THE GOVERNMENT INSPECTOR), or a partly prepared text, but I began to ponder, question, during the performance, just how much of NORA was completed and was not written during the process of the production rehearsal. It felt to be a relatively unexplored possibility in the watching of it, a first, or early draft – ideas thrown up, but not thought through, or tried, tested, explored, argued about, rejected or accepted with passion. What rigour was given the project? How hot got the hot house of this creative invention? Over how much time? Ms Sarks has given us, in these past two years, as a co-writer and director  (and actress, Ms Best) modern versions of women with troubles with ‘hubby’: the solution was for Medea to kill off the kids with cordial to spite Jason; Nora, to desert the kids for what she regards as a living death with Torvald; and next year from Ms Sarks we will have the children, Elektra and Orestes, reversing that trend, and, instead, getting in first, and murdering their mother, after she has dispatched their father. Revenge for Medea’s progeny and for little Emmy and John, perhaps? So then, next year, a matricide. Is there a Freudian pattern being worked out here from Ms Sarks, or, is it just a co-incidence of subject concerns? Are these productions ‘a talking cure’ for the writer/director? Or, something that a contemporary, subscription audience, parents and children, the Belvoir artistic gatekeepers feel we need to come to, once a year? Contemporary family dysfunction and unhappy solutions? Ha. I don’t know, I’m just being desperate, here, to understand, and, I do wish the end result was better on this once highly anticipated, famous stage, so that I wouldn’t notice the repetitions.

Hurrah, for Mr Ryan. Double Hurrah, for Ms Cropper. Otherwise, NORA, at Belvoir, would have been an absolutely tiresome time – some thought, an unbearable one. It has been, as Mr Myers keeps telling us, a great season, this year, at Belvoir: OEDIPUS SCHMOEDIPUS; THE GOVERNMENT INSPECTOR; HEDDA GABLER; NORA; OEDIPUS… Really?

And, what’s most interesting, apparently, is that they are all ‘new Australian plays’. Just with other people’s famous literary titles, or characters, or plots. THE WIZARD OF OZ – Belvoir,  wizards of Aussie new plays, indeed.