Over a century after his death, the modernist theatre of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen is still played all over the world stage. His characters, too, remain surprisingly modern. Brooding and tormented, they often stand at odds to the conventions of their times.
More than Ibsen’s men, it is his unfulfilled women we feel for in our age, from Nora in A Doll’s House to the rebellious Hedda Gabler and the long-suffering mother, Helen Alving, in Ghosts. This may be why several of today’s most eminent female playwrights and directors are now using Ibsen’s words as a lens through which to view the shifting position of women in society.
In the UK alone this year, there has been a spate of adaptations and updates of his later plays. It is easy to see why: Ibsen was interested in social injustice, corruption and hypocrisy – issues that chime loudly in our turbulent times. According to the Scottish playwright Stef Smith, he created “a canon of often flawed, nearly always multifaceted and sometimes funny women”. This, in a playwright, is a gift to a director, she says, and an inspiration to a writer.
In A Doll’s House, Nora Helmer, stifled by marriage and infantilised by her husband, reclaims ownership of her life by walking out on her marriage, home and family, famously slamming the door behind her. While many in Ibsen’s day found this ending to the play controversial, even scandalous, some responses were sympathetic to Nora’s situation. More importantly, her plight remains resonant for some women today.
In 2017, the US playwright Lucas Hnath wrote A Doll’s House, Part 2, imagining what happened to Nora after she left; and in 2018 the Iraqi-American playwright Heather Raffo turned Nora into Noura – an Iraqi refugee making a new life in America for the off-Broadway theatre Playwrights Horizons in New York. The British playwright Tanika Gupta relocated the same play to Calcutta for her adaptation, originally written for BBC Radio 3 in 2012. In her version, Nora is Niru, a young Bengali woman married to Tom, rather than Torvald Helmer, a British official in the tax office.
She added new layers of oppression and restriction to Ibsen’s existing framework. To Gupta, it made perfect sense to transplant Ibsen’s play to Calcutta. “It’s where the British Raj was based in the 1870s so it felt very apt. That’s exactly where someone like Tom Helmer would be working, in the tax office.”
Rachel O’Riordan, incoming artistic director of the Lyric Hammersmith in London, encouraged Gupta to revisit her original adaptation and rework it for the stage. Ibsen’s plays are so ripe for adaptation because “they’re bloody brilliant,” says Gupta. Structurally, “they’re amazing. They work so well”. She quickly realised that it would be a mistake to tinker too much with Ibsen’s structure. “In one of my drafts I set some scenes outside the Helmers’ home, but it just didn’t work. The whole point of the play is that’s it all inside the house and when she does finally leave, it’s like she’s breaking free from prison.”
It has been argued by some that the “woman question”, as it was then called, was one of the areas Ibsen was interested in exploring – he himself said in a much-cited speech given at a dinner held in his honour by the Norwegian Women’s Rights: “It is desirable to solve the woman problem, along with all the others, but that has not been the whole purpose. My task has been the description of humanity.” In other words, Ibsen was concerned not with gender, or so the argument goes, but with the self. Other scholars aren’t convinced by this and say that the feminist strain in his work speaks for itself. Joan Templeton, in her book Ibsen’s Women, states that his plays form “a remarkable contribution to feminist thought”. Gupta feels similarly. “I don’t care about what he said; it’s what he’s written.”
The majority of Ibsen adaptations have hitherto been done by men but that is changing, thinks Templeton, in part because there are now “more female artistic directors encouraging women to write” in the UK, at least. But why would this dynamic new generation turn to Ibsen when they can write a new play that articulates the “woman question” for their times more directly? Gupta’s response is pragmatic. “There’s less risk in putting on A Doll’s House than in putting on a brand new play. It’s a way of discussing these issues by using the classics.”
Smith suggests it is not just for this reason that we are seeing A Doll’s House increasingly being adapted by women; she thinks there is something enduring, and relevant, in the play, which blew her mind when she first read it as a student. “I was in awe at what Ibsen had created back in 1879.” As a young woman, the character of Nora haunted Smith and she felt a very personal connection to Ibsen’s text as a result. “Nora is a fascinating, multi-faceted character who is given her own inner life and eventually her own agency.”
Her version of the play, Nora: A Doll’s House, opened at Glasgow’s Tramway in March and transfers to London’s Young Vic early next year. It imagines a number of Noras in different time frames over the past century, revisiting the character across a 100 year period – in 1918, 1968 and 2008 – at “seminal moments in women’s journeys towards equality”.
This is Smith’s first adaptation. “So often, youngish female playwrights aren’t given the opportunity to adapt work – they are seen as creators of new work, rather than adaptation,” she says. Smith echoes Gupta’s observation of A Doll’s House – that it has mostly, with a few notable exceptions, been adapted by men, “which always struck me as odd and sometimes downright infuriating. It’s about time that those who identify as female are able to own and adapt the canon of playwriting as much as straight cis-men.”
Ibsen’s 1891 play Hedda Gabler showcases another of his complicated and iconic female characters. Often referred to as the “female Hamlet”, Hedda is that still-rare thing: a defiant, complex, captivating female lead. The play is clearly also tantalising to adaptors and directors. In Ivo van Hove’s production for London’s National Theatre in 2016, Ruth Wilson made a commanding Hedda in a silk chemise, only to get brutally undone, humiliated and spat upon. It’s hard to imagine a female director breaking Hedda in such a violent way.
At Chichester Festival Theatre, playwright Cordelia Lynn has re-imagined Hedda as a middle-aged woman for her new version, Hedda Tesman. Hedda, in Ibsen’s original, is young and only recently wed, but in Lynn’s version she is long-married to an ineffectual academic, returning to the UK after a long spell in the US as a faculty wife. The prospect of Hedda as an older woman is an intriguing one, though Lynn’s adaptation is at its most interesting when exploring Hedda’s volatile, knotty relationship not with a man but with another woman, Thea, a schoolmate in the original, who is here, her daughter.
Chelsea Walker, who is directing a production of the play for the Sherman Theatre in Cardiff, firmly believes that Hedda is a feminist text. “She feels trapped by the ways she’s expected to behave as a wife, a mother and a woman with a public reputation. She’s also trapped by the three men in the play – who not only want to possess her, but also want to own the narrative of who she is. Meanwhile she, in the centre, is figuring out how to keep hold of her sense of self.”
Walker feels that the reason we keep returning to Ibsen is that he was “absolutely spot on in his depiction of who gets to hold social power, and how much society is in thrall to those people. His plays pull apart social conventions, revealing them to be constructs, and he gives us female characters who push against those constraints. Of course female artists are going to want to pull those power structures apart.”
The repurposing of Ibsen’s work isn’t limited to the US and UK. In Kosovo this September, Blerta Neziraj and her husband, the playwright Jeton Neziraj, used Ibsen’s play An Enemy of the People (1882), about a man who speaks out and is punished for it, as the frame for a story of local corruption and called it In Five Seasons: An Enemy of the People.
Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s adaptation of this play was first staged at the Arcola Theatre in east London before playing on Broadway in 2012. When Adam Lenson, the artistic director of Nottingham Playhouse, came to her with the idea of turning the character of Doctor Stockmann into a woman, Lenkiewicz was delighted. Her new version is “a reworking of something that was pretty faithful into something subversive”.
Alex Kingston – of ER and Doctor Who – plays Stockmann. Not only does this gender-switching help expand the range of lead roles available to women, Lenkiewicz says, but “with #MeToo exploding, we’re more conscious of women being silenced over the centuries and in contemporary times. We’re supposedly equal now but that’s very much not the case”.
It’s not just that Ibsen wrote the most interesting female characters of all the 19th-century playwrights, says Lenkiewicz. It is also the way he wrote about them. “He had a lot of darkness in his own life, a lot of doubt. He was interested in transgression. There’s not a lot of hope in Ibsen, but there is questioning and, at the moment, we’re in the mood to question and interrogate what’s going on.”
There are even stranger synergies between then and now; Ibsen was censored in his lifetime and a century on, he was censored in China last year when a production of An Enemy of the People by Berlin’s Schaubühne Theatre was cancelled after audience members voiced criticism of the government.
“It’s incredible it’s still got that power,” says Lenkiewicz, and whether it is a case of projecting contemporary feminism onto Ibsen’s texts, or expanding on what is already there, he has, latterly, become very much the woman’s playwright.
Photographs by Getty Images, Mihaela Bodlovic, Johan Persson, Mark Douet, Tristram Kenton
A Dolls House at Lyric Hammersmith photograph Helen Maybanks, design by Lily Arnold, lighting by Kevin Treacy.