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

By Carey Purcell
20 Feb 2014

"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."