Comparisons are odious. Yet inevitable. Greg Hersov’s production of A Doll’s House at Manchester Royal Exchange (which enticed me to make my first, long-overdue trip to this excellent venue) has the dubious fortune to be following hard on the heels of Carrie Cracknell’s recently-revived 2012 take on Ibsen’s play at the Young Vic, a production viewed as the best for many years. Even those of us who weren't entirely persuaded by all aspects of that Simon Stephens-penned version couldn't deny its distinctive elements: an incredible spinning set by Ian MacNeil, for one, and Hattie Morahan’s all-out performance. For many, Cracknell's production will be a hard act to follow.
Never fear, though. For Hersov and his team manage to make something subtly different but also very compelling out of Ibsen’s masterpiece. Digging out the play's themes and images with admirable clarity, and with strong performances from all of the cast, this new production has a vibrancy and immediacy that's quite bracing.
A spry translation by Bryony Lavery, which puts subtle spins on some lines to give them fresh textures, helps. As does the space. While Helen Goddard’s spare design is far more conventional than MacNeil’s was, being played in-the-round gives the piece a particular intensity. The excellent Cush Jumbo - last seen in fine form as Mark Antony in the Donmar’s all-female Julius Caesar (which made by Best Productions of 2012 list) - cleverly uses Nora’s fractured mini-soliloquies to subtly make the audience her confederates and comrades throughout; we’re with the character every step of the way. Entering with a carefree giggle, ending with the determined stance of a woman who knows she must make a painful break in order to find herself, Jumbo expertly captures the character's complexities: she’s by turns gleeful, wheedling, flirtatious, vain, fearful and shrewd.
The actress is aided – as Morahan wasn’t, entirely – by performances that match hers in quality. Jamie de Courcey is an unusually effective Dr. Rank. Jack Tarlton, who featured in Cracknell's interesting short film variant on the play, brings both taunting menace and touching desperation to Krogstad. And David Sturzaker gives us a Torvald who considers himself a tolerant, avuncular fellow: an indulgent corrector of his wife’s foibles. Directed for pace, a few moments could use a little more depth and shading. But the production grips and moves nonetheless. The final slamming of the door may not shock as it once did, but the greatness of Ibsen’s play – beautifully brought out here – is that it’s not simply a period piece at heart; rather, it’s a work that still has much to say to us about the damage that an uncritical adherence to societal norms can do to the individual – in the domestic sphere and beyond.