Stef Smith has history with A Doll’s House, Henrik Ibsen’s nineteenth century psycho-drama about one woman’s emancipation as she stands up to the men who control her. This hasn’t stopped her reimagining the play for her new take on it that opens the Citizens Women season at the Gorbals-based theatre’s temporary home at Tramway this week.
Rather than stay faithful to Ibsen’s text, like the heroine of Ibsen’s original, Smith has branched out on her own with a radical new version that breaks out of its realist constraints to liberate it from its roots. For starters, the play has been rechristened as Nora, putting its heroine at the forefront of things from the start, with the original title now playing second fiddle as a sub-title.
Secondly, and in an even more radical move, Smith’s play has three Noras. These are contained in three separate time-zones, all key moments in history. The first, 1918, was the year women in the UK were given the vote. The second takes place in 1968, a revolutionary year marked by the legalisation of abortion, wider use of the contraceptive pill and seismic world events. And then there is now, with everything that entails. Such an audacious reinvention of Ibsen would be a bold move for any writer. For someone so immersed in the original, this is doubly so.
“My relationship with A Doll’s House goes right back to my first year at university,” says Smith. “I think I’d only read three plays – Bold Girls, Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet – and when I started my course I read Medea and I read A Doll’s House, which I thought was extraordinary, and made me realise that a play could change the world, especially knowing the political climate it was written in.”
This had a profound effect on Smith.
“I was haunted by Nora,” she says. “It was an awakening for me.”
Smith wrote her university dissertation on A Doll’s House, and even then had a notion that one day she might do something with the play.
“I specialised in directing,” she says. “I veered towards new writing, and I thought no-one would ever ask me to do it, but then Dominic Hill asked me what I was interested in, and I said if I could adapt anything it would be A Doll’s House.”
What was it about the play that spoke to Smith in this way?
“I think it was that discussion of how the biggest duty is to yourself,” she says. “I was eighteen when I first read it, and really felt that personal relevance in terms of it being about a woman finding out who she is, both politically and as a woman having the strength of her convictions and finding her own voice. That very much changed how I thought of myself as a Scottish rural feminist. At the time I hadn’t read anything like it, or anything that looked at the ideas it does.”
While it might be Smith’s favourite play, Smith hasn’t been shy about reimagining A Doll’s House in her own voice.
“It felt very much like taking things away from Ibsen’s play and making it my own,” she says. “The essence of the original is still there, but every draft I did came back with the same note to shake off some of Ibsen and put more of me in it.”
The result is a total reinvention of a play which can too often feel hemmed in by its rigorous emphasis on realism.
“I think it’s become more lyrical,” Smith says. “The form has changed a lot, so it no longer has a three-act structure. The play now takes place over three days, it uses direct address, and there’s a musicality to it, and a form that feels a bit more feminine and a bit more modern. My aim with this piece was never to do a light touch adaptation. I wanted to grab the bull by the horns as it were. I always knew I was interested in having multiple Noras onstage, and in many ways it’s a broad stroke look at a woman in her home across the years. As soon as I came up with that device everything fell into place.”
Smith’s radical take on A Doll’s House as part of the Citizens Women season arrives at a time when women writers and artists are at the forefront of a cultural shift that is political as much as artistic.
“I think we live in a world where #MeToo happened,” says Smith, “and in the past two or three years it’s felt like there’s been a boom in female voices. They were always there, but now it feels like there’s an upsurge in women talking about their role in the home and their relationship with power and money, and there’s a lot of that in the play.
“I worry sometimes that any conversation about marginal voices can end up sounding a bit tokenistic, but that doesn’t feel the case with the Citizens Women season. I think it’s a good thing. Even though it feels like there’s a surge of female voices at the moment, I don’t think it’s enough. The canon is so male, and that’s the case with writers, directors and lead characters. It feels like we need new stories to tell. That’s important, to have women’s voices on a par with men’s voices, and to look at the canon, but I don’t think we’ll ever get to a point where we reach an equal counterpoint. We’re up against a whole history.”
In the meantime, Nora: A Doll’s House is as of-the-moment as it can be.
“I think A Doll’s House as a story is timeless, unfortunately,” says Smith, “but I think that, like all good theatre, it’s utterly human. It’s an important story of a woman finding her voice in a society that would rather she was purified and simplified, and that’s as important now as it was a hundred and fifty years ago. It’s extraordinarily still relevant in that way, but the great thing is that Nora frees herself. She’s empowered, and that’s a gift for a writer.”
Nora: A Doll’s House, Citizens Theatre @ Tramway, Glasgow until April 6.
The Herald, March 19th 2019