By Jo Caird
I would not want to swap places with Nora Helmer, the lead actor of Henrik Ibsen’s play from 1879, A dollhouse. Married to a man who underestimates and bows her down, limited by the economic and social realities of being a woman in a man’s world, it’s no surprise that she’s disillusioned and unhappily ends the play.
However, I would very much like to live in her house. Or at least the version of it created by set designer Ian MacNeil for the 2012 production of A dollhouse at the Young Vic in London (pictured above).
In response to Ibsen’s scene directions for a ‘comfortable and tastefully decorated room, but not extravagant’, MacNeil delivers a set of pale blue-gray half-panel walls on a slow turn. He added elegant clean, some antique items and a brown Chesterfield sofa that looks comfortable. Large windows suggest a spacious veranda and a view worth seeing: the play takes place at Christmas in Norway, so perhaps a sharp, snowy scene; bare branched trees on the shores of a frozen fjord.
Against this refined background, we see Nora’s life begin to fall apart. She is meant to face the consequences of a judgment error in the past, and evaluate every element of her life with her husband. It can not help but fall short.
“Our house has never been a playroom,” Nora says towards the end of the play. “I was your doll wife, just like I used to be Daddy’s doll child.”
Perhaps it was the mature “playroom” quality of MacNeil’s design that struck me all these years ago at the Young Vic, an alluring vision of a family home miraculously impeccable by any evidence of family life. My partner and I then had no children; we bought our first apartment a few years before and still worked out what kind of house it would be.
Almost 10 years later we still live in the apartment, but with a five-year-old and a two-year-old next to us. Our few items of cool furniture in the middle of the century are hidden among craft materials, letters from the school and many other children’s items. (Unlike Nora, we have no loyal nurse to keep the kids and accessories in the right place. But to be honest, my mom is a big help).
This is probably why the stripped-down Scandinavian feel of the Doll’s House, an aesthetic that is completely at odds with the realities of my life, has stayed with me. While so many other theatrical productions have faded from memory, this one lasted.
To recreate a home like Nora — ideally without the proto-feminist anxiety — I would go to Solna, Sweden, to where this property with six bedrooms on the sound side is spacious enough for the children to have their own wing, leaving the bright entrance and lounge with panels as spaces for adults. I can see myself sitting comfortably in a windowsill, with the book in hand, while the happy laughter of the children emanates from a distant part of the house. Less than 30 minutes drive from central Stockholm, with a price of SKR59m ($ 6.72m), it is also convenient to swim in the city, if I have had enough of peace and quiet in the countryside .
Further south in Sweden, near the city of Kalmar on the Baltic coast, and available for 8.9 million SKR ($ 1.03 million) 19th Century Property has six bedrooms and a beautiful tile stove, similar to the one in Ibsen’s directions for Nora’s living room. There is a separate guest house with two bedrooms.
There is also a piano, just like Nora’s, that allows me to fulfill my ambition to start playing again. But I think I would avoid the tarantella — the fast-paced southern Italian folk dance that Ibsen uses as a metaphor for Nora’s break with female convention — and rather stick to more soothing varieties.
Photo: Corbis via Getty Images; Sweden Sotheby’s International Realty; Christie’s International Real Estate