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Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Shining Light into Dark Corners—Q&A with Simon Stephens

by Alicia Dhyana House

Hattie Morahan and Dominic Rowan. Photo: Johan Persson
English playwright Simon Stephens had never written a new version of a classic play until this Young Vic production of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, at the BAM Harvey from Feb 21 to Mar 16. His plays include Bluebird, Motortown, Harper Reagan, and Three Kingdoms. Both On the Shore of the Wide World and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time won the prestigious Olivier Award for Best New Play.

How did this project come to be?

I was asked to do a new version of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House by Carrie Cracknell, the play’s director, and David Lan, the Young Vic’s artistic director in the immediate wake of my version of Norwegian poet and dramatist Jon Fosse’s I am the Wind in 2011. The decision to revive A Doll’s House and to re-interrogate it came from two completely different positions, one of which was conversations between David Lan and Jon Fosse. Fosse is largely considered to be one of Europe’s leading living playwrights. In his conversations with Lan, he said that A Doll’s House has been widely misinterpreted as a feminist text by Anglo-Saxon theater practitioners, it was never Ibsen’s intention for the play to be perceived as being feminist, and that productions in Norway and Scandinavia are never staged as being a feminist text. Rather, it is a play about cruelty, about isolation, and about a character’s search for a sensible sense of self. It’s like an early text of existentialism rather than a text of feminism. And I thought that was a very bracing and provocative idea.

And then the second completely contradictory impulse to that was from director Carrie Cracknell for whom the arguments in the play concerning the autonomy of women, the authenticity of the female voice, and the oppressive nature of patriarchy, now 130 years after the play’s first production, remain as hot and urgent as ever—that we still operate within a patriarchy, that women are still marginalized, and that women still lack agency in their contemporary culture. So those two starting points—one denying it as a feminist play and one celebrating it as a feminist play—I found completely intriguing and very much wanted to interrogate.

In adapting this iconic classic what was your intention in how you were going to approach it? And did your approach shift during the process?

There is a tiny semantic point I’d like to make which is that the play is a version by me and not an adaptation. In terms of the text, structure, characters, and the story, it’s tremendously familiar. I have not done anything radical at all. I went into the play with the intention of doing something explosively radical and alarming. I was drawn to the notion by Ibsen’s major English language biographer Michael Meyer celebrating the cubist nature of the play. I was really drawn to unpicking that, but the more I worked on the play, the more I found I didn’t need to deconstruct it—that the structure itself was robust and radical. All I needed to do was find a language that felt present day without being idiomatic, that felt actable without being jargonistic. I didn’t want to resort to slang. I didn’t want to resort to contemporary idiom. I just wanted to create an actable language, something that was immediate and active. My work on it was exclusively linguistic. I tried to find a dialogue that actors could get their teeth into. I cut a thousand words. It’s leaner than most versions. It’s sharp. But actually it is a tremendously loyal version.

Is this your first time working on a classic play? What did you learn?

This is my first classic. I’ve subsequently done two more classics, including an upcoming version of The Cherry Orchard to be produced in the autumn at the Young Vic. I love the notion of approaching a classic text. What is important to me and when my work is at its best is when I’m not beholden to academia and when I am not beholden to trying to couch my work in a received understanding of how those plays live and breathe.

I don’t want to make classics contemporary. I don’t want to make them idiomatic. I want to make them clear, active, and transitive. That is the essence of my work. I do my best work when I don’t worry about the other versions. I think of Ibsen or Chekhov not as canonical towers to be afraid of, but as other writers making decisions about how they can possibly make their plays work—which is fundamentally the same decision that I make in all the plays that I write.

Are there any particular themes, ideas, relationships, or characters in A Doll’s House in which you find yourself confronted with and often wrestling with in your own plays?

Again and again I return to the same questions in my plays. I think that is what playwrights do. I think it’s a myth to suggest that a playwright or any artist invents a new world when they sit down to work afresh. I think rather what we do is return to those same obsessions that define us. I had an extraordinary experience with A Doll’s House because I was rehearsing A Doll’s House and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time [Olivier Award for Best New Play 2013] at the same time, as well as working on a new play of mine called Morning, and I found that all three plays were considerations of the same thing. How strange is it that in Curious Incident and A Doll’s House, which are two texts I didn’t conceive or initiate, there should be the same word-for-word line of dialogue which is “I couldn’t stay a night in a stranger’s house.” There must be a reason I was drawn to both of those plays because thematically they both resonated with what I am trying to do as an artist—to ask the questions, What is it to be at home? What is to leave home? What is it to return home having left? What is it to commit to a family? These are themes that sit through all my plays and absolutely sit through the heart of A Doll’s House.

Theater is one of the most collaborative art forms. I’ve read how much you honor and value collaboration. What was your experience collaborating with a writer that is no longer living?

How do you collaborate with a dead writer? Well, I put him on my screen saver. Every time I came to work I sat staring at his face; he has a very austere face and he glowered at me and warned me not to fuck the thing up. I read a lot about what Ibsen’s intentions of the play were and what his themes were rather then what his intentions had been described as after the fact, and tried to honor those. I tried to make the thing live and breathe.

I read an interview where you said, “what we do when we tell stories is we try to make sense of things we don’t understand” and that you try and explore things that frighten you as a means of having some ownership of them and that you have an instinctive compulsion to shine a light in dark corners. What specifically frightened you about A Doll’s House? Which dark corners did you shine a light on and what did you discover?

For me it was about recognizing myself in the female protagonist Nora. It was about recognizing the extent to which society and cultural morals define and trap us, the extent to which that can be a liberating thing. I was really fascinated by the lineage between Nora and Margaret Thatcher. When Margaret Thatcher said in an interview in the early 80s that there was no such thing as society, it felt like one of the most brutal, ill-considered, and savage statements that any political leader could make. Certainly in my upbringing, Margaret Thatcher was a brutal, cruel figure and a figure against which I understood myself and I became fascinated by the idea that Nora was saying the same thing.

I am fascinated by our responsibility to our children and to ourselves, and how we reconcile those two conflicting responsibilities. I am fascinated by the question about whether it’s possible to live in a society and whether there is such a thing as a society. And whether society is repressive or whether it’s liberating or whether it is actually repressive to women—or do I just enjoy the notion of it being a liberating force because I am a man? And in actual fact, if my wife did a version of A Doll’s House, maybe she would write a very different play. I am quite fascinated by that and shining my torch into that particularly cruddy corner.

Alicia Dhyana House is a freelance theater director based in NYC. She was the stage director for Goldberg’s Variations, part of BAM’s 2013 Next Wave Festival.

A short version of this interview ran in the January 2013

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