In cybernetics, they talk about ‘the uncanny valley’. The phrase refers to a curious problem that people encounter as they try to make electronic or mechanical images of people realistic. Basically RD-D2 has some human characteristics; he/it is petulant, petty, wily, huffy and holds grudges. But he really looks nothing like a human so we find him cute. C-3PO has lots of human characteristics, being campy, clever, pompous, cowardly, given to pessimism, spite and blame. He is also a lot more humanoid and, partly as a result, is a lot less likeable than R2-D2. And what people working in robotics and in digital animation have found is that the closer an image of a human being comes to resembling a real human being, the more strongly human beings react with a feeling of deep disquiet, even horror, to that image. We are happy with robots or cartoons that only very vaguely resemble humans; we are, of course, fine with images of humans that exactly resemble humans (as long as we don’t know that they’re not real). And in between is the uncanny valley.
Does the theatre have its uncanny valley? I was struck by this odd thought watching the Young Vic’s new production of A Doll’s House, directed by Carrie Cracknell, in an English version by Simon Stephens, with Hattie Morahan and Dominic Rowan as Nora and Torvald Helmer. A good deal of work has gone into making this story feel real. Stephens’s script is supple, contemporary and spare. The actors are unshowy, truthful and detailed. Most strikingly, Ian McNeil’s set is a flat in an apartment block and he’s placed it on a revolve so we see Torvald’s office, the sitting room, a dining room, Nora’s bedroom, the front door and entrance hall as the set elegantly wheels around, giving us momentary tableaux, whispered conversations, glimpses of glances. In the modish way it’s fastidiously pulled the play a few decades forward in history and the play is set in a small-ish flat in an apartment block, Torvald’s office a tiny cupboard of a room, though they still have a maid and a nanny. It strips the play just enough of its nineteenth-centuryisms to let us see this familiar play unfamiliarly. Much of the original play’s windy rhetoric has been removed. The show does feel more real.
But the uncanny, unsettling effect is that the more it approaches realism, the more I notice its shortcuts and theatrical devices. I love Ibsen, don’t get me wrong, but this plot strains credulity; I wonder why Nora blurts out that she forged her father’s signature to Krogstad? She’s kept it secret from Torvald so she knows it’s information best kept private. Then why doesn’t she bluff it out with Krogstad? Her father was very ill. Maybe his signature will be shaky and unfamiliar. The money would have come to her anyway; would a court really convict? Would Krogstad have the money to take her to court? And the more the production placed the action in a world I recognised, and I was able to fill out the hinterland of the play, explore its psychological spaces, the more unreal the action seemed.
The set is beautifully detailed and genuinely feels like a set you could live in. But again there are some puzzles. Why are there windows between the dining room and Nora’s bedroom? That seems a rather immodest arrangement. Where’s Torvald’s bedroom or the kids’ rooms? Where’s the loo? The bathroom? Maybe further on down the hall, but that feels wrong because the revolve on which the set is placed feels like it’s showing us the whole story, the Helmers in the round.
The performances are individually powerful. Hattie Monahan is in many ways wonderful as Nora. She’s flighty and flirty but with a hint of steel at the beginning. She feels much less doll-wife and more trophy wife - Torvald’s desire for her is very clear. Her dancing of the Tarantella is sexy as it’s supposed to be, but also oddly desperate and isolated (the first half ends with her dancing in the spotlight, eyes on a horizon that she can’t see). Her flirtation with Rank is very believable, coquettish but pushing the limits. I was not convinced by the final scene though; I said in the interval that I was looking forward to seeing her go from chaffinch to feminist in 45 minutes. I didn’t really think she did. Partly, this is because Torvald’s response to the revelations is so stunningly crass and on-the-nose (‘Can I confess something to you? I actually find your lack of insight and lack of understanding and lack of ability to know what to do rather attractive’) that a more likely response would be mocking laughter than divorce. And without really feeling that we understand a whole transformation of consciousness, Nora’s departure feels like caprice. I didn’t buy her leaving and that’s a problem for A Doll’s House. I felt that Monahan’s performance was a little one-note in the final scene; a lot of responsibility is placed on a long silence at the dinner table and then an awful lot of explanation, delivered at enormous speed, with a vocal technique to suggest being close-to-tears that I heard but didn’t quite believe.
Dominic Rowan’s Torvald was stiff, but then Torvald’s a bit stiff. It was good to see him recognisably drunk and lecherous and not just the dry old stick he normally is. (Strange moment last night: as Torvald drunkenly slags off knitting in favour of embroidery, there was a smattering of applause from the audience. Yeah, in your FACE, knitting.) I very much enjoyed Mrs Linde and Krogstad; the latter was completely credible, I thought, his motives a mixture of self-assertion, resentment, and sexual manipulation that the character didn’t appreciate (but the actor, Nick Fletcher, did). Mrs Linde is a thankless part in some ways, thrown onto the bonfire of the plot to make a point about women sacrificing themselves for men, but Susannah Wise found her a woman on the edge of poverty and various kinds of fate worse than death. Just as Krogstad is the play’s cynical heart, Linde is the play’s openheart goodness, and she pulled that trick off without sentiment. Steve Toussaint’s Dr Rank captured mischievous flirtation and bruised arousal, though I didn’t really think he was that depressive, despite the other characters insisting he was.
But it’s because all of these performances were often so truthful that I felt the discomfort of the small gaps where its unrealism was exposed. Torvald comes in and asks if all the shopping is hers. ‘Is that bad?’ she asks, coyly. ‘It’s a little bit bad. Not terribly bad,’ he replies. But he doesn’t check the bags; he doesn’t have a clue what she’s bought. So on what basis is he saying that it’s a little bit bad? Yes, maybe he knows her habits, but it seems uncharacteristic of Torvald to be so cursory. Similarly, Linde’s decision to tell Krogstad not to retrieve his letter: it just seemed out of the blue and unrelated to the compassion we’ve seen elsewhere; a moment of Gregers Werle-like high-mindedness rather than affection and realism.
I wasn’t convinced by the loud music that blared every time the revolve started turning, but maybe it’s got a loud mechanism. I felt that more could have been done with the idea of us peeking into this home, a greater sense of the multiple stories that can’t be kept hidden in this small apartment. At these moments, the realism fell short and the valley opened.
The set reminded me very much of the suburban home in Katie Mitchell’s A Woman Killed With Kindness last year. Indeed, it was hard not to think of Katie Mitchell because this production borrowed her kind of set, her characteristic updating, her use of parallel scenes, and - in the case of Hattie Monahan, Dominic Rowan, and Nick Fletcher - three of her actors. I’ve seen this before, in Marianne Elliott’s Thérèse Raquin for example, where a few superficial aspects of Mitchell’s theatrical style are borrowed in the hope they will add up to true naturalism. In that case they didn’t and in this case I don’t think they do too; indeed, they only emphasise the distance from truthfulness that the production has achieved. I once compared Katie Mitchell’s productions to those situationist pamphlets wrapped in sandpaper so they would destroy the books around them as you removed and replaced them on the shelf. The kind of rigour in her work produces a level of truthfulness that makes it hard to accept second best.
Of course, there’s no reason why the theatre has to aim for realism. The problems I’m talking about don’t arise in, say, a Richard Jones production, where the theatre is foregrounded its own theatricality. But with realism, it seems, it’s all or nothing.
I’m sounding much more negative than I feel. Generally, I liked this production. It brought out to me the real shock of Nora’s decision. Thomas Ostermeier brought his updated Nora to BITE a few years ago and it was clever in many ways but at the end, Nora not only left Torvald but pumped a handgun full of bullets into him first. I’m all for feminism, but I don’t think we should bring back the death penalty for being a patronising shit. This production reminds us just what a momentous decision Nora makes and, even if I didn’t felt I quite went there with her, I was thrilled to feel the sense of daring in her decision.
Lastly, it may be, of course, that the uncanny valley is a theatrically interesting place to inhabit (the way that certain movies - Westworld, The Stepford Wives, The Invasion of the Bodysnatchers - manage to). Indeed, maybe naturalism is a genre that entirely occupies this realm. In which case naturalism should be seen less in terms of truthfulness, realism, science and experiment, and more in terms of trauma, posthumanism, and the unconscious.