Sunday 27 October 2013

A Doll’s House – programme interview with Simon Stephens

[Ages ago the Young Vic asked me to do an interview with Simon Stephens for the programme of their West End transfer of his hugely successful version of A Doll’s House. Since that finished its run last night, I figure posting it here now so you can all read it isn’t going to cost them any programme sales (as if it ever would have). Hopefully at some point I’ll get round to posting a much fuller version – the whole interview runs to about 4,500 words. This is just 1,000 with all the questions cut to a bare minimum and no preamble...]

Watercolour of SS by Mark Haddon - saved off Twitter. Hope that's ok.

[second thought: something that really annoys the hell out of me about interviews is the way that often it's not clear under what circumstances they took place. Especially when laid out like the below. This was a face-to-face interview in Simon's office which I recorded, transcribed, and then edited to pieces. My own questions have been largely pared down to as little as possible in order to allow the bulk of the wordcount to be Simon. Hope that helps.]

Why A Doll’s House?

Carrie Cracknell was fascinated by the sexual politics surrounding Nora and the meaning her narrative has now, 120 years after it was written. When the play was first performed in England, George Bernard Shaw held up Nora as symbolic of female emancipation. But this was at odds with Ibsen’s intention. In his letters and in the journals he kept, Ibsen talks of his frustration with people who see Nora as a flag-bearer for women’s rights.

Instead she represents...?

When I read Ibsen’s letters what struck me was that he was wrestling an awful lot with his sense of his own authenticity. He was held up as emblematic of Norwegian literature. This theme recurs again and again in his letters and journals and his essays at the time – a frustration with how he is perceived.

And you can relate to this with your second show about to go into the West End?

[laughs] I don’t know, I have no idea how I’m perceived. Playwrights don’t have anything like the cultural currency they had 120 years ago. I can imagine it’s the kind of thing an actor might relate to. Playwrights are ignored by most people. And that’s how I like it.

I do think it’s true that the characters playwrights create are carved out of themselves. And - well, Ibsen’s not here to talk about this but, reading his journals and letters, what I realised was that Nora isn’t emblematic of female emancipation, she’s emblematic of him and his feeling of being trapped in ways that he perceived as limiting. He was railing against that.

This is “a version but you haven’t changed the script...?

No. But the last time I saw this production I did think I’d made a tremendously English version. I might have started off with the intention of writing something born out of Scandinavia but I think it would be idiotic to say that that’s what I’ve done.

What do you mean by “English”?

There are some linguistic flourishes that I added to make lines sing more happily out of my mouth and those flourishes Anglicised the energy of the lines. So there’s a lot of: “You can’t possibly know what...” – embellishing lines with adverbs and qualifiers because we English, being a fundamentally polite nation, qualify our language constantly.

Is there a consensus on how to approach doing “a version” of a foreign play?

There’s a broad range of opinions on this. Gregory Motton, who does many translations usually from the original, is quite savage about the culture of “versions”. His idea is that if you’re doing a “version” there will always be an instinct to Anglicise the language which will betray the author and assume idiocy on the part of the audience. I guess David Eldridge is at the other end: that while born out of the original text, you shouldn’t feel beholden to the original syntax, the original rhythm of language.

All things are a version of a version of a version. That’s what theatre is. The notion of staging the writer’s original intention is specious. People talk about getting entirely into the writer’s head. I’d say that’s bollocks. We all deal in collaboration.

Does working through another playwright’s eyes also change you as an artist?

I think so. I think if I did more Ibsen it would change me fundamentally. There’s a level of dramaturgical daring in his plays I find inspiring. He tries stuff I wouldn’t dare.

When writing this version, I went back again and again back to that third act, thinking: “This isn’t possibly going to work”. The gear changes from Torvald finding the first letter from Krogstad and banishing Nora from her children and promising to keep her prisoner within her own home, to getting the second letter from Krogstad and, in the throes of euphoria and relief, forgiving her. I remember thinking: “This is where we lose the audience. They won’t believe any sentient human would do this.”

How did you solve that?

There were two decisions we made: one was the introduction of the possibility that Torvald’s illness, which is vague in the original, was probably a mental breakdown, so there’s a character with a backstory of erratic psychological behaviour. The other was to amp up the amount of booze he’d had. But then considerations of madness and alcoholism are central to my writing. There’s a lot of drinking and madness in my plays.

Why drinking and madness?

They fascinate me. I come from a family of alcoholics. My dad died when he was 59 of alcohol-related illness. As a writer you return to what haunts you. I mean, it’s a long time ago, it’s twelve years ago now that he died. But his death was nowhere near as definitive to my sense of self as the last 10 years of his life which were all about hiding booze and drinking at 11 o’clock in the morning. Brutal.

So what else of you do you think has bled into this version?

As somebody who is social-democratic if not socialist in his thinking – and certainly as someone for whom the central architecture of my life is my family and my responsibilities to my family – it’s not surprising that I don’t see Nora as an icon of female emancipation. What she does is pretty questionable. I think she’s really drunk when she leaves...

So you think she’ll be back the next day?

[Laughs] Yeah! I get really pissed off when people ask: “What happens to the characters next?” about my own plays. But I’m fascinated by it in A Doll’s House. I don’t know what the hell is going to happen to Nora but there’s part of me that thinks she’s going to go back next day, hung over and apologetic [laughs]. But that might just be my upbringing [still laughing].

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