Marta Dusseldorp tells us about finding her character Nora Helmer in the nuances of Lucas Hnath’s script.
Caution, the following interview contains spoilers.
What do you think the driving force behind your character is?
The practical driving force behind Nora is to get her divorce filed. She has found out that Torvald never filed it when she left fifteen years ago, and she need him to do that because she has behaved as an unmarried woman.
In those times, that meant she could go to jail, because she has signed contracts and conducted business. She has also had lovers, so she’s been unfaithful, and she did all that thinking they were no longer married.
I think that there is also an emotional and psychological reason she’s come back: it is impossible to walk away so completely as a wife, as a mother, and as a human being. She could have easily just sent a letter demanding him to sign the divorce, but instead she turns up herself. I think she does it because there is this needs for there to be a reckoning. She needs to have the story completed, and I think that is something that is totally relatable in a modern audience, that we have to finish what we start, otherwise we can’t truly be free.
How do you inhabit your character? Do they have specific gestures, movements, facial expressions?
The first thing I do in theatre, is I look at the weight of a character: where is her centre; where does she land her weight? Shoes are vital for me. Nora wears boots. She has metaphorically been walking for fifteen years.
Then you look at what the character says and does. These things can be opposing, or forward-moving: are you pulled by the argument, or do you push the argument? Do you believe in what you’re saying? Are you saying something, but behaving in a different way? You’re always looking for energies that are opposing, in yourself and with the other character.
This script is written in a very particular way, it is not a normal layout. The playwright, Lucas Hnath, gives the performer clues as to how to break up the thoughts and land them, and that has been a huge help for me. It has short-tracked any particularity of thought. Hnath sometimes uses words in threes. People repeat the same word when they’re trying to make a point or they’re lost for what exactly they’re trying to say.
How does your character grow during the course of the play?
Nora arrives full of her new identity that she has been curating over the last fifteen years. She has done very well: she’s very rich, very successful, and has managed to wrangle the world, which as a woman in that time was not so easy. I think it’s still the case.
As we can see, it’s not 50/50, women do not have equality, so it’s poignant and very relatable to now. This is not a period piece. Nora arrives fully formed, in her mind, a single woman, and she has lived her life.
The way that she grows through the play is through the other characters, and through the obstacles that they present. Anne Marie was her nanny, basically her mother. Nora’s mother died when she was quite young, and Anne Marie brought her up, so she’s relying on Anne Marie to help her convince Torvald to file the divorce. She refuses to help, and Nora’s not expecting this. So like any good drama, Nora hits an obstacle to what she sees as a very simple, pragmatic transaction. In hitting that obstacle, it means emotions start to rise. That’s not just anger, that can also push into intellect. That’s what’s so great about this play: there is an intellectual badinage that usurps any emotional drowning out. What we’re finding in rehearsals is the more emotional it is, the less engaging and clear it is for the audience. That’s not to say there aren’t emotional stakes, but they must be nuanced.
Then Torvald happens to arrive home: second obstacle. She wasn’t going to talk to him today, she was going to set Anne Marie up to do all her dirty work for her, and he walks in. She has to receive the consequences of her actions fifteen years prior, which is something she has not yet had to face. She thinks she’s got all the answers, she thinks she knows exactly what she needs, but Torvald refuses to give it to her, and also explains to her the consequences of what she did. I think that’s great for a modern audience too because we understand that there are consequences to actions.
The third obstacle is when it becomes clear that her only option is to meet her daughter. This is where, for me, the play reaches its emotional centre. You put the daughter in front of the mother, they don’t know each other and haven’t seen each other for fifteen years, and you realise the emotional chasm that needs to be crossed.
Hnath manages to articulate that through intellect for the first half of their scene, and the second half becomes a Greek tragedy where we start plunging further into what has been lost.
During this scene Nora lets go of her original objective, which was to simply get the divorce, and understands she doesn’t need it, she now needs to face the fact that she hasn’t been divorced and use that as her next weapon to the world, to change how the world is toward women. We suddenly see a new Nora with a new manifesto and a new hope for the future, which is where we are now as modern people, and women, and most men too, hoping for a better future for women.
Nora is willing to go to jail, confess that she was married, and see what those consequences are. In a way, she becomes a martyr for her cause. This is a woman who understands what that means, her sacrifice has been huge. At the end of the play there’s a speech to explain what she went through to understand who she is now. It’s about sacrifice, silence, and it brings into the room the idea of what are you willing to give up in your life to make the world a better place. It goes outside of the I and into the us.
Torvald eventually makes the greatest sacrifice he can, he gives her the divorce, and she then has to articulate this new way of being in saying ‘I don’t need it’, and what that does to them is they erupt and break open. They savage each other, it becomes very emotional with intellectual stabs, but out of that is the ultimate reckoning of their relationship to allow them to stand side by side. She then goes off to be this new person, I think never to return. She has finished the thing that she started. I think that’s what Hnath always intended, to explore how you finish something like this, and that you can. That’s good to know in life too, that you can actually put something to rest, and not let that define you for the rest of your life.
How would you describe the actor-audience relationship in this production?
To me, the actor-audience relationship is crucial. It’s the final bit of the puzzle, and we are all very aware of that. We can’t wait to meet them. This play is a conversation with the audience. Because of its debate potential, there are sides to be taken, and they change all the time. We’re finding in the rehearsal room that you think you’re with someone, and then suddenly you think another perspective is valid too. It shows the non-black-and-whiteness of people’s perspectives and where they come from. We’re going to need the audience to tell us how clear we’re being.
I never do theatre for any other reason than for it to resonate with an audience. I need them to tell me what’s resonating and what isn’t, and I can feel it in the temperature of the room. This is an interactive piece. People often ask me how I can repeat a performance night after night, but really there is no repeating. Each night we have a new jury, and each night we have to plead our case. I think what’s super clever about this piece and what Hnath has done, is that he’s managed to maintain the emotional intelligence within that. I’m hoping no one can walk out without feeling moved more than once.
Do you have a favourite line from Hnath’s script?
NORA: I just hope I live to see it.
The offer of this play is to incite the audience, to encourage, implicate, reassure, inspire, and to germinate the idea that you can go out there and make the world a better place.
A Dolls House, Part 2 plays at Southbank Theatre from 11 August 2018.