Women on the verge: Hattie Morahan and Ibsen's Nora

Playing Ibsen's feminist heroine in A Doll's House has taken Hattie Morahan to the cusp of greatness. Holly Williams meets her

Nora in A Doll's House is right up there on the list of big theatrical roles for women; Henrik Ibsen's 1879 play provides a richly complex female central character, who ultimately leaves her babying, patronising husband – and her children – so she can discover who she really is. The play has also, of course, been seen as a game-changer in feminist literature and, for its move towards realism, in theatre history.

Not that knowing that is all that helpful for any actress tackling Nora. Hattie Morahan played the role in a production directed by Carrie Cracknell at the Young Vic theatre in London last year; the show was such a hit, it's about to be revived with much the same cast. She confesses she was "both daunted and excited" to take on the part, adding that "It feels a real honour. It's a part that is written about because of the history of feminism, and of theatre… [But] you actually just have to shed that; Nora doesn't know she's an iconic part, or that her door slam is reverberating through history. You just go – OK, that's for other people to talk about."

Talk about the play people certainly did – Simon Stephens' fresh, crisp new translation was well received, while the revolving stage Cracknell set it on was more divisive – but much of the chatter was reserved for Morahan's impressive performance. Kate Bassett in The Independent on Sunday called her "a great actress in the making, if not of that rank already," while The Sunday Telegraph deemed it an "once-in-a-lifetime performance." Then Morahan won best actress at the Evening Standard theatre awards in November – seeing off formidable competition from Cate Blanchett, Eileen Atkins and Laurie Metcalf – as well as netting a Critics' Circle award. Yesterday, she was nominated for best actress at the Olivier awards too – raising the distinct possibility of a Hattie hat-trick.

Meeting Morahan at the Young Vic, the week before a fortnight's refresher rehearsal period, she still claims to have been completely blown away by the wins. "I really wasn't expecting it. You absorb it after several months… but thinking back, gosh, it's incredibly nice." She's eloquent, intelligent, but well-spoken in the slightly old fashioned sense, her speech littered with jolly-hockey-sticks "gosh" and "blimey".

This humbleness continues with a clear-sighted, if self-deprecating, understanding of the way that such awards tend to work: "If you do something headline like Nora in A Doll's House, people go 'ooh, should we give them an award?' In many respects it's nonsense, but I'm utterly thankful, and so honoured."

Morahan herself is strikingly open to more experimental theatre. After getting a degree at Cambridge, she leapt straight into working as an actress (a season at the RSC, nice break if you can get it), and then did four productions with theatrical iconoclast Katie Mitchell, which she loved. "I hadn't trained [at drama school], so it was the first time I'd encountered any structured approach to getting under the skin of a play or a character. [Mitchell has] rigour and good humour and strength of vision… she's just a brilliant being really."

Some of the shows – such as Mitchell's take on Chekhov's The Seagull – were not always well received. Morahan suggests that with such physical, "more European" ways of staging plays, it takes a while to tune your brain in – a process she enjoys, but which some people seem to resist. "In this country, there's such a tradition of 'the word is sacrosanct' and people standing on stage and delivering clever writing in a way that isn't always about absolutely coherent psychological truth but about" – here she adopts a plummy theatricality – "letting the play be heard".

Things may be changing, however. Morahan mulls over her hunch that there's a new generation of theatre audiences – and practitioners – who have grown up on a diet of experimental fare: "I think things will shift; people are more open."

Her own background means that Morahan has had plenty of experience of sitting in the stalls; her mother is an actress, Anna Carteret, while her father, Christopher Morahan, is a theatre, TV and film director. She was taken to the theatre a lot as a child, and confirms that it was always the career path she wanted – laughing at the idea of herself as a pompous 10-year-old, watching plays, taking note, plotting how she would play a part…

"I just caught the bug," she says.

Her parents must have been particularly proud of her performance in A Doll's House – for Morahan's mum played Nora herself in the Eighties. "She said, just honour all the different facets of the character – because she's massively multifaceted – rather than trying to condense her into a uniform whole. Part of the key to her is the varied prisms through which we see her."

Although the theatre is her first love – she received glowing notices for her equally multi-faceted, and supremely moving, role as poet Edward Thomas's exasperated wife Helen in The Dark Earth and the Light Sky at the Almeida recently – Morahan also impressed with a subtle performance as Elinor Dashwood in the BBC's Sense & Sensibility in 2008, and appeared in a high-stakes adaptation of Martin Amis's Money.

Then there was a main part in ITV's underrated Eternal Law last year: a sort of metaphysical courtroom drama, it centred on a pair of angels sent to earth to help humans by working as, erm, lawyers. It may, Morahan ponders, have been too much of a "way out" concept, and was cancelled after only one series – despite deliciously devilish performances from fellow stars Tobias Menzies and Sam West.

And many people will recognise her from a small but recurring, and very funny, part in the BBC's hugely popular sitcom Outnumbered, in which she plays the completely hopeless Jane. Morahan also appears in a film due out in June: Summer in February tells the story of a love triangle in the Newlyn artist colony in Cornwall at the start of the 20th century; Morahan plays the painter Laura Knight, and her co-stars include Emily Browning, Dan Stevens and Dominic Cooper.

Morahan got to spend a couple of months shooting in Cornwall, which sounds rather lovely, but home is usually Finsbury Park in north London (although she's trying to move, and after the interview explains she's off home to get stuck into some DIY). She lives with her fiancé, Blake Ritson – although it is, she explains, a very long engagement: "we haven't done anything about it – we've been engaged for about seven years! It's a totally long, very nice, sort of aimless engagement."

Ritson, who she met at Cambridge, is also an actor and film-maker: "It could be very difficult – a lot of people say 'oh god, I could never go out with another actor' – but actually I think it's more helpful than not."

For now, Morahan's attention is on revisiting A Doll's House, a rare chance to return to a stage production – although she has, she explains with her voice rising an octave or two, been "slightly in denial" about re-learning the lines and stepping back inside that revolving house. "I've no idea how much will come back. But I'm really, really excited because it was just so exhilarating to play that journey every night. The part is bonkers – but really fun to do."

'A Doll's House', Young Vic, London SE1 (020 7922 2922; youngvic.org) 28 March to 20 April; 'Summer in February' is released on 14 June

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

opera
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
    Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

    Poldark star Heida Reed

    'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn