In late 2020, Oscar winner Jessica Chastain was filming the HBO miniseries Scenes From a Marriage in New York City. At the same time, she was in conversation with British director Jamie Lloyd on a potential West End revival of A Doll's House, in which she would play Nora. Lloyd then asked Chastain about bringing on a female playwright to adapt the Ibsen play. Recalls Chastain, “‘He said, ‘You know, I really think we need a woman's voice on this.’ And I couldn't agree with him more.” Luckily Chastain knew just the writer. Enter Obie-winning playwright Amy Herzog.
Chastain and Herzog had met on Scenes From a Marriage, where Herzog co-wrote the series and was the executive producer. And they had circled each other for years prior. Chastain had attended Juilliard with Herzog’s husband, Tony-winning director Sam Gold—and she had seen Herzog’s play The Great God Pan (starring a pre-Succession Jeremy Strong) Off-Broadway in 2012).
When they spoke to Playbill, Herzog was still fine-tuning her adaptation of A Doll’s House, which opens March 9 at the Hudson Theatre. Herzog’s inclusion is fitting considering that A Doll’s House is regarded a pivotal piece of feminist literature. Previous Broadway productions of Ibsen’s text, which was originally in Norwegian, used adaptations written by male authors. This new version, written by Herzog and led by Chastain, who has made waves in Hollywood for her advocacy for pay equity, finally puts women in charge of the storytelling (though the 1997 revival adapted by Frank McGuinness used a translation by Charlotte Barslund as its base).
When they spoke with Playbill, it was still early on in the rehearsal period but already, Chastain was effusive, saying that in contrast to how mannered and “less human” adaptations of classic texts can sometimes be, Herzog’s feels fresh and immediately accessible: “She makes it just feel so real and so honest and so personal. The language feels like it belongs to everyone in the room,” enthuses Chastain. “I find it to be incredibly inspiring to work on. I don't have to manufacture, I don't have to dig deep. I can just simply say the words and allow them to take me to places that I hadn't planned out. And that's a gift as an actor, to get that kind of text.”
Touched, and slightly stunned, Herzog responds, “Thank you, Jessica.”
“I mean it. Whole-heartedly,” responds Chastain, who is starring in A Doll’s House as Nora, Ibsen’s heroine who goes from being a meek, obedient bird at the beginning of the play—even her husband refers to her as his “lark” and his “songbird”—to a woman who resolutely leaves her husband and children at the end (though this new version omits Nora's interactions with her children, they just appear as voices).
Likewise, Herzog has been finding her leading lady inspiring, calling her “my Nora.” Says Herzog: “When you think of who Nora is, and what she means in dramatic literary history, there's just so much baggage there. To be able to discard that and be like, ‘No, there's a person. I can close my eyes and see her face. I know all of the things she can do.’ And let that inform the writing.”
Chastain starring in A Doll’s House was originally supposed to happen on the West End in 2020, using Frank McGuinness's adaptation. Then the pandemic happened and with it, time to reimagine the play anew.
Along with Lloyd, this team’s goal for this Doll’s House is to shake up the audience's preconceptions about the play as a kind of feminist manifesto. “I know Ibsen himself felt that the play got reduced to this kind of political parable, and he felt that it was a drama of the human spirit,” says Herzog, who has loved A Doll’s House since high school. Her play Belleville (which was produced at New York Theatre Workshop in 2013, was a homage to Doll's House—it was about a modern couple living in Paris navigating the disintegration of their marriage.
Herzog remembers seeing previous versions of A Doll's House where, at the end, the audience happily applauds when Nora leaves her husband Torvald: “Everyone's sort of wiping tears away, feeling like, ‘Here we are on the right side of history. It’s not 1879 anymore.’ We as an audience all agreed on the correct morality of this tale. And I find the play, in a very interesting and thrilling way, uglier than that. More tangled than that.”
Chastain agrees. When she looks at A Doll’s House, she doesn’t consider it a tale of a woman who is a helpless victim. Instead, she sees Nora as a woman who, by acting childlike for the men around her, has actively enabled her own oppression. They put her in the cage, but she outfitted it, and herself, to be beautiful.
“I like Amy's version because everyone is responsible in this version,” says Chastain. “I hope when the audience comes to see it, they don't see it as, ‘Oh, this man has oppressed this woman. And he's a bad guy. And now, she's free to go experience the world.’” And it's hard to see Torvald as a clear-cut villain when he's played by such a naturally sympathetic actor as Arian Moayed.
Real life isn’t as simple as that, says Chastain, who has played her fair share of complicated women who are participants in their own misery (her previous Broadway credit was The Heiress in 2012 and she just played Tammy Wynette in the Showtime series George and Tammy): “The reality is sometimes when you're being oppressed, you're participating in it, because you're trying to find some sense of freedom within it. But we can also be brave enough to say, what if I just decide not to play this game? What if I risk someone not listening to me, someone not seeing me? Because now I'm going to show you who I really am. And that is very, very exciting to me—examining Nora from this modern lens of what a woman in today's society is.”
That is why, in Lloyd’s stage space, there isn’t any period clothing or anything to denote that this Doll’s House takes place in the 1800s. Instead, the play—similar to Lloyd’s Tony-winning treatment of Betrayal (that starred Tom Hiddleston) or Cyrano (starring James McAvoy)—is set in a kind of “anytime,” says Chastain. It's completely bare, no set aside from a turntable, and just some chairs as props. Chastain as Nora wears a long black dress, everyone is dressed minimally. It's a vision in tandem with Herzog's own approach, which was to create an adaptation of Doll’s House that was “stripped down” and felt like a “contemporary” play.
Chastain sees her version of Nora as similar to Marilyn Monroe, someone else who also spoke in a childlike voice and who used her beauty to grasp at power. But when do you play along with the game, and when do you just decide to upend the board? That’s what this new Nora, and hopefully the audience watching her, will decide.
“[Marilyn] played this character that was very pleasing to men around her. And because of it, she got a lot of power,” says Chastain. “She was using the system to her advantage. But what if we decide the system’s wrong, and we need to change it so women don't have to appear in that way in order to be heard or seen or have power?” What does such a world look like? Well, step inside this Doll’s House to find out.