The Lady of the House: Hattie Morahan Reflects on Role of A Doll's House's Nora for Modern-Day Audiences

By Carey Purcell
February 20, 2014

Award-winning actress Hattie Morahan chats with Playbill.com about portraying Nora in Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House at Brooklyn Academy of music.



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"I'm just interested in things that move me and make me think, make me laugh," Hattie Morahan said of her thought process when chosing parts to play. "Whatever feels a bit different and a bit new and explores a bit of my head I've not delved into before [is intriguing to me]."

The British actress' next role certainly falls into the categories she listed: Morahan stars as Nora in Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House, which begins performances at Brooklyn Academy of Music Feb. 22, prior to an official opening Feb. 26. Directed by Carrie Cracknell, the production, which was adapted by Olivier Award-winning playwright Simon Stephens, played two sold-out runs and a West End transfer in the United Kingdom, and Morahan was awarded both the Evening Standard and Critics' Circle Award for Best Actress.

Transferring to Brooklyn from the Young Vic in London, Morahan first starred in Ibsen's story of a dysfunctional marriage struggling under the strains of blackmail and deceit at the Young Vic in June 2012 and revisited the role at the Duke of York's Theatre in fall 2013. Upon returning to the role, the actress, whose stage work includes Twelfth Night, The Seagull and The Real Thing, said she finds something new in it every time and looks forward to revisiting Nora, Ibsen's housewife who ultimately decides to leave her patronizing and demanding husband.

"It's sort of the most extraordinary play; I've never had that with a project," she said. "Every time you return to it, you sort of discover more. It's such a rich creation." A Doll's House, which was first performed in 1879 in Denmark, remains a frequently-produced play and is often included in literature and drama studies. Morahan first read the script in drama school, but said she thinks she only had a "superficial understanding" of it then.

"I don't know how much you can really comprehend of the depths of that when you're 17," Morahan said. "It's a play that sort of speaks to you in different ways according to your life experience. I respond to it from a very different way now, in my mid-30s. I'm sure if I was a mother, you'd get an even more visceral response to the act of leaving her children."

The responses are experienced by the audience as well, many of whom have discussed their reactions with Morahan after seeing the play.

"I used to have lots of really interesting conversations, often with older women, who'd been to the play, who responded because they had been through particular marriages, which might have had similarities to the marriage in the play," Morahan said. "It provokes really strong reactions in people, which is kind of gratifying as a performer. That's sort of what you want is to change the audience, make them feel something and think something."

Morahan credits the response that A Doll's House, a 19th-century play, evokes in a 20th-century audience, to the relevance of the text in present-day society, citing Ibsen's distancing himself from the women's movement and referring to A Doll's House as a humanist play. She said many have read it as an existentialist text, mentioning that it asks questions about honesty with a partnership and being true to oneself, as well as addressing economic disparities and the contrast between haves and have-nots.

"I think the response is because it's a woman as the protagonist, and she's within a particular type of marriage," Morahan said. "The relationships run on a particular pattern that entraps them both. I guess what it forces people to think about is where we think we've come in terms of feminist emancipations and the rights of women, and even though huge leaps have been made in terms of rights and laws, there is a lot of insidious inequality that we don't necessarily register because we're just so used to it... It's about relationships and it's about families and marriage and the family we see, and it's a very weird, distorted relationship. It makes you question where we're at."

Morahan describes herself as a feminist, saying she views modern-day feminism as a very complex situation; she also mentioned that she finds many women reluctant to identify with the label, fearing being viewed as "anti-men" or "anti-feminity or humorless."

"It's difficult to know where to start," she said. "I would definitely say I'm a feminist. To me it just means being attentive and mindful. It's about equality and equal treatment. It feels like a gut instinct. I think one's aware the media can bombard us with messages and what's in place, what the government intends for support for families. I think the older I get, the more I'm aware you have to put your antennae out and you start to detect insidious problems that are out there."

One problem Morahan said she has detected is the portrayal of women in the entertainment industry, which she said judges female appearance by a criteria that is unrealistic. Citing film, TV and news stations as well as theatre, she said she thinks women face great scrutiny in terms of their appearance.

"I would say this applies to men as well," she said. "There's a pressure to conform to particular images, and it feels a pretty exclusive pool of body image or facial image that is considered appealing. And in a way that feels like pre-judging what an audience might actually want."

The character of Nora focuses greatly on her own appearance, as Morahan put it, "performing versions of feminity to different people, according to what she feels she needs to get," until she decides to leave her husband in an attempt to discover who she truly is, a decision that marks the culmination of Nora's journey throughout the play, which Morahan describes as "mind blowing."

"It's the kind of play where, if you compare how she is when she first comes on, to how she is at the end, you can't quite believe it's the same character," she said. But Morahan stressed that Nora is not a noble victim. Describing her as "very slippery," Morahan said, "she's incredibly manipulative. She plays games with her husband. She needs to be manipulative towards her friends, [she's] kind of not afraid to backstab her friend to impress another guy."

While developing her character's backstory, Morahan came to the conclusion that Nora had been taught to be a certain kind of woman while growing up and is facing an incredible amount of stress while maintaining the façade that is her marriage; it's the final conversation between Nora and Torvald that reveals how mistaken Nora was about her marriage.

"It feels like she's never had a moment to consider her life, to assess her unhappiness, to assess what her role is in this household or in this world," she said. "It's just been received assumptions all her life. It's sort of a moment of existential terror, really, and I think her leaving is just a combination of thinking, 'I've just got to get space and separation from the situation, because all I know is it can't continue as it is. And if I remain, I'll just fall back into old habits.'"

The decision to leave her husband, and her three children, is very controversial, Morahan said, and it's one she thinks is viewed as both a positive and negative act.

"I feel pretty ambivalent about it," she said. "I don't think their lives are going to be happy after she leaves. I think it's going to be really hard and pretty miserable and difficult. It's such a strong gesture and it's so remarkable that she makes that. I think it's going to be painful and messy. It's fascinating, really. It really divides people, and people have all kinds of different opinions on what happens next.

"Torvald, I feel quite strongly, is just as much a victim of society's pressures on him," she said. "The whole 'man up' thing. Those pressures are still there, and we're still struggling to know how best to relate them to one another and bring up our children. And marriage is difficult... All those sort of issues remain very pertinent. As long as we're still living with one another and trying to make a living, then the play will still be relevant. It seems to touch on a lot of big issues. And it makes people talk and it makes people think, so it doesn't surprise me it's such a key work."

Along with the complexity and relevance of A Doll's House, Morahan stressed the humor in the work, which she described as "a comedy of manners, at the same time being a thriller and an emotional roller coaster." She said many are surprised by the comedy that the play contains. 

"You can't help but make judgments about these characters," she said. "As the curtain goes up, you think, 'He's a bit pompous,' or 'She's totally manipulative and does those silly voices - I'm not like that, am I darling?' By the end, you're thinking, 'Oh, I see why they're like that. Who's to say I wouldn't be the same?'"

Many audience members have shared with her the effect of the show, including one man who said that watching the final scene between Nora and Torvald caused him to realize the way he treated his ex-wife, saying, "I was sitting, watching that last scene, and there were sections of it, word for word, that my ex-wife and I were saying as we were breaking up."

The impact of A Doll's House is one aspect of its timelessness, Morahan said, which contributes to the show's popularity.

"I think people keep returning to it because the issues haven't gone away," she said. "We've struggled with carving our identities and being comfortable with them in the world. There are still pressures that society jerks on us to fulfill certain roles, be it to do with one's gender."