Saturday 26 July 2014

Full text: Simon Stephens

[on adaptation: A Doll’s House]

Simon Stephens by Mark Haddon

Ahead of the West End Run of Carrie Cracknell and Ian McNeil’s production of A Doll’s House, the Young Vic were kind enough to ask me to contribute an interview with Simon Stephens for their programme. When the run ended, I posted the programme text on here with the promise that I’d upload the full text sometime. Recently, I was emailed by a PhD student who wondered if I was ever going to put the full text online. So here it is:

AH: Whose idea was it do A Doll’s House? Where did it come from?

SS: Well it was an idea that was brought to me. The genesis came from Carrie Cracknell, the director, who was and remains fascinated by he sexual politics surrounding Nora [the original title of A Dolls House. I'm slightly guessing which use is intended in each instance here] and representations of Nora and the meaning of her narrative now 120-odd years after its writing. But it was brought to me by David Lan who was excited not only by Carrie’s enthusiasm for it, but also by the thoughts of Jon Fosse on the way Ibsen was being represented in England.

So this came after your adaptation of I Am The Wind?

It came around the same time. I was approached in rehearsals, I got on well with Jon and he was very happy with what I’d done. Although I Am The Wind didn’t really succeed in the Young Vic, it was a big hit throughout Europe and [the director] Patrice Chéreau was very happy with it – it was a co-production with lots of different theatres –Théâtre de la Ville, Paris and the Grec Festival in Barcelona – and it was fascinating seeing how the different way it was received in Théâtre de la Ville compared with the way it was received at the Young Vic. People in the Young Vic were largely perplexed and unsettled by the whole thing and in Paris received it like it was the most euphoric poem every written. Going out with Tom Brooke and Jack Laskey afterwards; it was like they were rock stars. They were stopped in the street, you know, a mile away from the theatre by people who were in awe of their performance, which is kind of an amazing thing to witness.

Anyway, Fosse had a take on Nora which really excited David Lan and he talked to me about it, which was really this idea that the play as received in Norway – according to Jon – was not a celebration of the importance of female emancipation at all. Now, and in the history of productions in Norway. And I think the kind of notion that I’m familiar with is represented by Michael Meyer in in his seminal study of Ibsen called, imaginatively, ‘Ibsen’ is that actually it was the early British or Irish response to Ibsen in London at the end of the 19th Century – the start of the 1900s – that gave a very particular refraction to the representations of Nora, specifically the response of George Bernard Shaw who held her up at a time when he and Harley Granville-Barker were running the Royal Court theatre and were celebrating the work of Githa Sowerby, who wrote Rutherford and Son, and really engaged in the sexual politics of emancipation at the time they found in Nora a kind of flag bearer for women’s rights. And this was something that sat at odds with Ibsen’s intentions. He never intended her to represent – in the letters and in the lectures and in the journals he kept he talks of his frustration with people who represent Nora as being symbolic of female emancipation. Because for him she never was.

Instead she’s representing...?

Well, I think what Fosse would argue, I think when I read Ibsen’s letters at the time, what strikes me is that he was wrestling an awful lot with his own sense of his authenticity and the extent to which he’d been received in a particular way by the literary cultures of Norway, not just within Norway – he was in Italy for a lot of the time when he wrote the play – and was held up as emblematic of Norwegian literature, but became objectified and commodified and was received in a way that sat at odds with the way he felt. And I think this kind of theme recurs again and again in his letters and his journals and his essays at the time – a frustration with how he is being perceived by other people. And how that perception sits at odds with how he really feels.

Is this something to which you can relate with your second play about to go into the West End?

[laughs] Er. That’s a bit of a blindsiding question. I don’t know, because I’ve got no idea how I’m perceived at all actually. I’ve no idea how people... I don’t think writers have the same... I don’t think playwrights have the same cultural currency as...

You were on a Hot List in Grazia, weren’t you?

I was on the List of Lust, I think you’ll find it’s called, in Grazia, but that’s entirely accidental and related to going out once with Polly Vernon who edits that list. Not going-out dating, but going out drinking. But I don’t think playwrights have anything like the same cultural currency that they did 130 years ago, so I can imagine it’s the kind of thing that an actor might relate to, or a y’know, kind of a football player might relate to but but I think playwrights are ignored largely by most people. And that’s exactly how I like it to be. It’s really good. It makes me very happy. And most people who do know who I am normally have some level of serious commitment to and engagement with contemporary playwriting. And they’re quite interesting people. Quite nice people. So that’s alright.

But, yeah, for Ibsen, Nora was emblematic of... I think I do think it’s true to a real extent that all characters that playwrights write are in some way carved out of themselves. And, well, clearly he’s not here to talk about this, but reading the journals and his letters at the time that was what I extrapolated, that Nora wasn’t emblematic of female emancipation, but she was emblematic of him. And feeling [word inaudible] and contained and trapped in ways that he perceived as limiting and wanting to rail against that.

That’s really interesting.

It might be bollocks, but it also accords with what Fosse was talking about. Because what he talked about was that in Norwegian productions she’s much more represented as being cruel and selfish and egocentric and destructive which is often edited – not edited, but not engaged with in Britain and that was what really drew me to it.

And was Carrie doing that? Because my impression was that if Carrie was doing that, no one sent Hattie the memo – would have been my take on that, because - to my eyes - Hattie was playing a sympathetic character...



I never saw her as that in rehearsal.

That’s really interesting.

I think the way she treats Doctor Rank is unbelievably cruel. I think the way she treats Mrs Lind is just unbelievably selfish and unthinking, her capacity for savagery in the way that she lashes out at the servants is consistently high-handed and her treatment of Krogstat in the end is ungenerous and unthinking and lacks empathy.

If Nora is nothing but an emblem for female emancipation she’s not a human being therefore and I think she’s much more interesting than that, so my impulse was to try to reclaim that. And part of reclaiming that humanity involved dramatising that selfishness and thoughtlessness as honestly as her capacity for clarity and bravery and I think that might be the stuff that Shaw shied away from

Presumably you’ve had conversations with Hattie about this. What’s her take on it?

I think she would agree with me on it. Nora is unquestionably cruel towards Mrs Lind

I guess the way I, and probably generations of Nora-apologists and/or those making the argument for female emancipation, would justify or rationalise that is that it could equally be symptomatic of somebody panicking. She’s in such a fix that all her behaviour could be boiled down to not that she’s irrationally cruel, she’s backed into a corner.

That’s fair. But I think that there are times when she’s irrationally cruel. No hold on, do I think that?

But these things are all present in... I mean, you haven’t changed the script...

No, because the thing is as well is that the last time I saw A Doll’s House I kind of thought I’d made a tremendously English version. I might have started off with the intention of writing something more born out of Scandinavia but watching it I think it would be idiotic to say that’s what I’d done. And I think that’s kind of fine, I think starting with the intention of doing something and achieving something other is something that happens in the creation of all art. And when I saw it in the revival this year I was struck by how English the sensibility of it was and you know...

What do you mean by English?

I think there are some linguistic flourishes that I added to make lines sing more happily out of my mouth and I think those flourishes anglicised the energy of the lines. So a lot of “My dear Mrs Helmer” or “You can’t possibly know what...” – the use of adverbs, embellishing lines with adverbs, and just qualifiers, because the English being a fundamentally polite nation will qualify their language constantly. And I think if the production was successful – and it was a successful production – I wonder if partly it’s because the text is more is more anglicised than I’d anticipated making it.

How close did you get to the Scandinavian?

I’ve never seen it in Scandinavian, I’ve never seen it in Norway.

Presumably you were sent a literal translation and...

I was sent the original as well, Swedish. He wrote in Swedish.

How close did you get to the rhythms, or was it just sense that you were dealing with?  I don’t know how people do translations... Is there a “correct” or an ethical...  Is there a consensus? Do people go to conferences on this?

Yeah, they really do.

But do playwrights go to those conferences? Do you all hang out and talk about this?

I don’t know if we hang out and talk about this, but there’s certainly debate about what the role of the playwright should be in the making of a version. David Eldridge, who’s a friend of mine, has done three Ibsens. Very successfully. So I certainly talked to him about it, before I started work, and listened carefully to what he was talking about. Like with everything, the range of opinions on that question is extremely broad. So someone like Gregory Motton who does a lot of translations, but tends to write from the original, to translate from languages he can read. He’s quite savage about the culture of “versions” and is really unforgiving. It’s a fascinating read it’s in the introduction to Strindberg Plays Two he writes exactly about this issue of doing versions and is completely damning about it and is really hostile in terms of his sense that if you’re doing a “version” then there will always be this instinct to anglicise the language which will always betray the original author and that will always come from a position to assume idiocy on the part of the audience. So that’s one extreme and then I guess someone like David Eldridge might be on the other extreme. That there’s a directness and an openness to the way he writes his versions that while born out of the original text shouldn’t necessarily feel completely beholden to honouring the original syntax, the original rhythm of language.

I read the literal out loud and aspired to get a sniff of that original rhythm and language not just in terms of... I don’t think I’d have had it in my imagination to fucking write anything down – to actually write any words – if I felt too beholden to the original syntax and language. And actually, I think Motton’s underestimating the extent to which all things are fundamentally a version of a version of a version. That’s what theatre is. I think the notion of staging the writer’s original intention is specious. It can’t actually sit with what theatre is or with what theatre is for. Or what theatre is as an artform. People talk about getting into the writer’s head but that’s bollocks. You don’t get into the writer’s head. The only people who will ever get into a writer’s heads are brain surgeons in the unfortunate event of a writer needing brain surgery. The rest of us deal with collaboration all the time.

The more I think about it the more vehemently I feel this, that there is no archetypal platonic form of what a play should be and actually if there was, if Ibsen had directed his own world première in conditions that he dreamt of with actors that he adored it would still be a version. It not that you’re getting inside Ibsen’s head... much I might have wanted... for me this is where theatre’s really interesting, because much as I might have wanted to honour the Scandinavian tradition of portraying Nora as somebody who’s not emblematic of female emancipation and much as I might have wanted to make something more Scandinavian, I didn’t, because I’m not necessarily in cogent control of everything I do as an artist.

Also do you think there’s also a thing that because the audience have their knowledge of the British history of the play...

Yeah. Exactly. I was going to pursue that idea. If one were able to go into a time machine and take that original Ibsen production and transpose it to the National Theatre now or to the Young Vic or to the Lyric or to any theatre in London it would be a different cultural phenomena precisely because all the audiences know the play before they go in. because the play has been mediated by learning it at school or by studying it at university or by other productions of it. And also we’re not – if we saw the original Ibsen production we wouldn’t understand it – most of us wouldn’t understand a fucking word of it, because it’s Swedish

Its what you were talking about on the Guardian website about John Donnelly’s production of The Seagull. All that swearing and all those English words [annoyingly, I can't find this now]. I went to see The Seagull and really enjoyed it, really enjoyed myself and thought John did a super job on it and bought a copy of the book at the interval, and then in the second half I put it on the floor by my seat and in the second half in that old Matcham theatre in Richmond it slipped between the gap between my seat and the seat in front of me, so at the end of the play I had to ask the woman in the seat in front of me if she could pass me my book and they made a joke about me being able to find time to read during watching the play and I said, oh, no, it’s a copy of the play and they asked a really interesting question which was: “is it this play or is it the original?” And they were really enjoying it, they had had a good night, they weren’t being pejorative, but I thought their question was really indicative of lots of different assumptions that we sit on when we go to the theatre. If it had been the original, it would have been in Russian. And a particular old form of Russian that Chekhov would have written in, in the way that Ibsen wrote in Swedish in a particular way. For their contemporaries was not perceived as being old-fashioned or creaky; the play was perceived as being radical. I don’t know if there were actually riots, but what happened in Germany is that a leading actress refused to play the end of the play as it stood, so got Ibsen, and he agreed to do this, got Ibsen to rewrite the ending so that Nora stayed with Torvald and the children. And he did that happily.

Well, her walking out is a decision which could go either way, isn’t it?

What happens in the whole structure of that remarkable third act is that there are a whole load of twists and turns – really quite astonishing gear changes. One of my favourite things about doing the version was writing from Ibsen’s perspective and imagining myself as a dramatist and imagining the things that he’d imagined and the moments that I found hardest to imagine were those moments throughout the third act where he invited characters to go on remarkable shifts of psychological state in tiny spaces of time. So it kicks off with Mrs Lind and Krogstat reconciling, Lind persuading him to drop the debt, them agreeing to be together, which is pretty melodramatic. And one of the hardest things about writing the play was writing that in such a way that it felt to my ears to my brain as being psychologically compelling. That was pretty hard to write that in a way that left me feeling yes if I was him I would say yes to her offer, if I was her I would make this offer. So that’s a slight recalibration of some of the energies. largely cutting actually. I mean, most of the stuff that I did was cutting. I cut 1,000 words from the literal. I think there’s something like 30,000 words, so cutting 1,000 is a 25th lets say, so it’s not tiny...

The Ibsen literal was to an extent actable so it was just about refining and refocussing.

Apart from the technical challenges, and the urge to repoint the British sympathies toward Nora, what was the most interesting aspect of it for you. I mean, does it change you as a playwright?

Yes. I think so. I think if I’d done more of Ibsen it would really fundamentally change me. I think there’s a level of dramaturgical daring in his plays that I find really inspiring. So he rally tries stuff that I wouldn’t try and doing a version I imagine wht it would be like to be him thinking “I am going to make the decision to try this”.

It was a hugely original play for its time...

What was interesting was that it took popular melodrama forms and just operated within the confines of the melodrama. I was just [reading?] an essay this morning about The Third Man by Carol Reed, which was written by Graham Greene and talking about the astonishing achievement of that. I think it’s one of the greatest screenplays and it’s one of Green’s greatest works but the different tension by which it both adheres to noir structure and then sits at odds with it, so there is a kind of femme fatale figure, there are confrontations in cafés with strangers, there are phone calls with nobody on the other end of the line, there’s a big culminating meeting between the hunter and the hunted. It’s all classic kind of noir set pieces but Greene operates within those and structures them to make it a very profound consideration of the morality of the world of post-war black market.

And I think Ibsen does a very similar thing, I think he takes so many moments that in a lesser writer’s hands could be archetypal melodrama, you know? There’s lots of letters never sent, lots of secrets from the past, there’s lots of lovers coincidentally bumping into one another after years of separation, all of this is the meat and drink of melodrama but he uses this convention and writes against it I find that really fascinating. I think like, that third act, I go again and again back to that third act when writing the version thinking “this isn’t going to work. This isn’t possibly going to work. The gear change from him finding the first letter from Krogstat and then effectively banishing Nora from her children and promising to keep her prisoner within her own home to then getting the second letter from Krogstat and in the throes of euphoria and relief he forgives her.” I remember working on that and thinking “this is where we loose the audience”. They’re not going to believe that any fucking sentient human would do this. And so there were two decisions made about that, one was the introduction of the possibility that Torvald’s illness, which is very vague and unspecific in the literal very probably was a kind of mental breakdown so there’s a character with a backstory of erratic psychological behaviour and the other thing was to really amp up the amount of booze he’d had.

And considerations of madness and alcoholism are really central to my writing. Alcoholism and madness return again and again in my plays. Herons, On The Shore of the Wide World, Country Music, there’s stuff about drinking in Pornography, the bottle of gin that runs through Morning as a kind of emblem, The amount of boozing in Three Kingdoms – there’s *a lot* of drinking in Three Kingdoms... There’s a lot of drinking and madness in my plays.


Because I think they’re kind of things that fascinate me. I come from a family of alcoholics. My dad died when he was 59 of alcohol-related illness. And so as a writer you do return to those things that haunt you. I mean, it’s a long time ago. It’s twelve years ago that he died, but actually the death was nowhere near as definitive to my sense of self as the last ten years of his life, which were all about hiding booze and and drinking at 11 o’clock in the morning. Really brutal. So as a writer that’s something you’re going to return to and obsess about.

I think I’ve tried to be as articulate as I can in my defence of writing versions because I think all literature is built on a process of making versions of versions of versions so I don’t have any truck with the arguments of Gregory Motton who posits, however compellingly and seductively and angrily – and he does and they’re a great read – but I just think he’s wrong.

I think every version of the play is indicative of the things that writers are conscious of when they make a version but also emblematic of the things that they’re unconscious of. And I think that would be the argument of this academic that even writers who would consider themselves to be left-wing, who consider themselves to be feminist, are operating in cultures they can’t control and so it may not be surprising that they write versions that sympathise more with Torvald and which cut Nora’s voice more than they would realise they were doing. And she’s quite interested in statistical analysis although I think she underestimates the power of not speaking.

But I would say, the other thing, and so it’s not surprising that in my version themes that have haunted me like compassionate consideration of mental illness and an interrogation of alcoholism and the presence of alcoholism in our culture that have fascinated me from [his first two plays] Duke and Good Rockin’ Tonight [here he points to the posters on the wall of his office.] right up to Morning and Blindsided, I think. And even Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, actually, those things should be underlined and revealed in my version. It’s amazing rehearsing A Doll’s House at the same time as rehearsing Curious Incident now these are two pieces by two different writers that I’m just doing an adapation of, generated by Mark Haddon and Henrick Ibsen yet being I remember one morning really clearly very vividly having a realisation that the same line appeared in both plays. Which is the line: I could never spend the night in a stranger’s house. Which is something that Christpher Boone says to Mrs Alexandra, his neighbour, and something which Nora says to her husband.

So another consideration of mine which is really central to both these plays is “What is home?” “Is it possible to leave home?” and “Is it ever possibly to return home?” Really simple questions, but they sit in my plays from Bluebird onwards so it’s not surprising that that fascination or revelation should underpin my versions as well.

And the other thing is a consideration of psychological catastrophe of anatomised culture, which is a multisyllabic way of asking the question “Is there such a thing as society?” Have we lost sight of the fact that there is such a thing as society? Because the notion of society carries with it responsibilities as well as rights and in that sense is Nora’s argument to try to justify her departure in my version does she become does she articulate quite post-Thatcherite ideas in the literal version the line that I really think pinged out is a version of the line “There’s no such thing as society”. And there’s part of me that thinks actually Torvald’s got a point. He’s not got a point about Christianity I don’t believe in his argument on Christian grounds, I don’t believe in his argument on grounds of obligations to a husband, but I think sometimes we’re better when we take responsibility for our own actions and commit to the possibility of a shared action and I would as somebody who’s always been kind of social democratic if not socialist in his thinking and certainly would as someone for whom the central architecture of of my life is my family and my responsibilities to my family so it’s not surprising that I don’t see Nora as being an icon of female emancipation. I think she does things which are pretty questionable.

I also think she’s really drunk when she leaves...

Do you think she’s be back the next day?

[Laughs] Yeah, yeah! It’s really interesting because I really hate that question, you know, when people ask me that question of my own plays, I get really pissed off, but actually the two things I am fascinated by are Curious Incident and Doll’s House. Maybe because I didn’t generate them, there’s part of me that is absolutely convinced that Ed and Judy, Christopher Boone’s parents are definitely going to get back together. And really, I don’t know what the hell is going to happen to Nora, but it’s a fascinating question and there’s part of me that thinks she’s going to go back the next day really hung over and apologetic [laughs]. But that might just be indicative of my upbringing [still laughing].

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