A huge black house has landed on the Donmar stage, with tiny windows and no way in. As the roofs grinds off to reveal an almost bare sitting room, save dismal lighting and a few wooden chairs. The stage is clearly set for a dark domestic drama – The Doll’s House Part 2 by Lucas Hnath.

Ibsen’s A Doll’s House which premiered in 1979 left audiences deeply shocked when at the end Nora, trapped in unhappy domesticity throughout, walks out on her husband and children, for good. Hnath’s response to Ibsen’s Norwegian classic begins 15 years later, when Nora returns to the house for the first time. Nora has returned to seek the divorce her husband never gave her, at a time where a woman could only get a divorce herself if her husband has threatened her life. Like a Greek tragedy, the drama is set in one space and over a short period of time; a series of intense duologues with no other action and a ticking clock.

If that’s sounds like a dour proposition, it does at times feel heavy but there is lightness too – found in the nuanced performances of all four characters, who driven by their own agenda’s, oscillate between insight and blindness. June Watson gives a gloriously layered performance as Anne Marie, mother, maid and nurse to the family is practiced at obscuring her personal needs, yet they gnaw at her stomach as she enters old age. Noma Dumezweni is brilliant casting as Nora, bringing strength and stillness to the character we once saw fluttering like a trapped bird. She is the alpha figure on stage, Torvald (Bryan F. P’Byrne) now the flailing husband, who seems to have gained superior emotional intelligence after all these years but is ultimately powerless.

At the heart of the drama is a debate about marriage and whether it is ever a good thing for women. Nora argues that women can never truly be seen in this role that offers them no freedom of expression. She recounts the first two years after leaving her family where she sewed for money in a boarding house, deciding to remain completely silent until she had drowned out the voices of the men in her life and could finally hear her own. When she could finally hear her own voice, she wrote the story of her life which became a best-seller and inspired other women to leave their husbands and children. To get a divorce your husband had to have threatened your life. She felt her life was in fact threatened because she loved with a man who didn’t see her. If marriage is cruel and incompatible with love to Nora, her clever daughter Emmy (Patricia Allison), who she hasn’t seen for 15 years is longing for a life shared, where someone can truly know you. Nora’s return threatens her prospect of marriage.

All performances are striking although is sometimes hard to believe in the voices of the characters which float somewhere between now and the nineteenth century. At times the play feels more like a game than a truly broken family facing each other - as the stakes rise for each character, the plot thickens and the ‘best’ solution must be found from the three proposed. Whilst the debate remains pertinent and the psychology often complex. this is a play likely to grip the mind rather than the soul, whereas Ibsen’s original did both.

Photo credit: Marc Brenner