The more familiar you are with A Doll’s House, the better you’ll be able to appreciate the scope, sophistication and fierce intelligence with which Samuel Adamson’s new play interrogates Ibsen’s themes of personal freedom and domestic imprisonment in an LGBT+ context.
On one level, Wife is a literary dissection of A Doll’s House, and its story of Norwegian Nora walking out of the gilded cage her husband has made for her. But at the same time, it’s an absorbing, time-hopping story of inter-connected relationships – of mothers and sons, fathers and daughters, and lovers – spread out over a century of British history.
In four delectably drawn scenes, each set after a different production of Ibsen’s classic, we see generations of the same family struggle with the same problems. In the 1950s, the unhappily married Daisy rows with her lesbian lover Suzannah; in Thatcher’s 1980s, we see Daisy’s gay son Ivar squabble with his closeted boyfriend Eric in a West End pub; in the present day we see Eric’s daughter Clare confront an ageing Ivar; and in the future, 2042, we see Clare’s daughter discovering Ibsen afresh.
It’s remarkable, both structurally and stylistically. Adamson’s dialogue is effervescent and authentic throughout, ideas flowing almost as fast as the words. It’s funny too, particularly the pub scene, in which Ivar extravagantly pleads with his lover to “plough me in the name of Ibsen!” What impresses most, though, is his insightful observation that relationships – whatever shape and size – echo the same conventions and contradictions as that of Nora and Torvald in A Doll’s House. Can we, he asks, really call ourselves progressive when the same power dynamics play out, time and time again?
Kiln Theatre artistic director Indhu Rubasingham’s staging moves fluidly and fluently, interspersed with exuberant snippets from the four separate Ibsen adaptations. Richard Kent’s adaptable set shifts the scene smoothly from dilapidated dressing room, to bawdy bar, to stylish restaurant and back again.
The performances are excellent. Joshua James is particularly good, multi-roling as an overbearing 1950s husband and as Ivar in the 1980s. Karen Fishwick beautifully captures the suppressed passion of Daisy and the intelligent indignation of Clare. Calam Lynch is also great as the uncomfortable Eric, then as a vapid, but immensely entertaining, young actor.
The play is consistently thought-provoking and sensitive about relationships. As playwright Dan Rebellato points out in the programme, few plays have been as muddled up and messed around with as much as A Doll’s House over the years. Rarely, though, has it been done as deftly as this.