My Thoroughly Modern Ibsen

By Adamson, Samuel | The Independent (London, England), January 15, 2009 | Go to article overview
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My Thoroughly Modern Ibsen


Adamson, Samuel, The Independent (London, England)


It was written in 19th-century Norway, but for the playwright Samuel Adamson, Little Eyolf speaks volumes about 1950s Britain. Here, he explains why he gave it a makeover

In 2005, I wrote an English-language version of Henrik Ibsen's early play Pillars of the Community for the National Theatre. Pillars has a problematic last act, one that is almost impossible to play straight. Bernick, the central character, is a Judas to his wife, son and town. Then he is rehabilitated by the noble example of an old girlfriend. All her goodness rubbed off on him, he confesses his crimes publicly, promises change, begs forgiveness. It's a remarkable turnaround, and every member of the community, including the girlfriend, believes it. Given that Bernick was prepared to send his brother-in-law to certain death in a dodgy ship - the one crime he neglects to admit - it's hard for an audience to accept that no one sees through him, which might account for the play's chequered performance history.

There are hints, however, that Ibsen's instinct was to write something more complex. Early drafts reveal that he cut lines that would have undermined the straightforward idealism of his chosen final ending. It is possible that he wanted his audience to question the authenticity of Bernick's transformation from bad man to good, but then lost his bottle.

After discussions with Marianne Elliott, who directed the play at the National, I decided to insert some of the draft lines into my version. Not many - just over 30. But, combined with a few cuts and a reordering of a key scene, they gave us a playable text. The girlfriend was freed from her Pollyannaism, a new layer of irony was revealed, and the actor Damian Lewis was able to locate the wily politician within Bernick and give a champion Tony Blair impression.

The experience of reworking the final act of Pillars got Marianne thinking. After the production closed, she asked if I'd consider adapting Ibsen in a more radical way, perhaps by imagining one of his plays as a window on to a place and time that wasn't Norway of the 19th century.

I'd been asked to do something similar before, a Noughties update of A Doll's House, that famous play in which Nora slams the door on her husband so she can make sense of the world. But Noughties Noras don't have to leave men in order to make sense of things - thanks, in part, to the original Nora - so I couldn't work out what she'd be slamming the door upon. I decided A Doll's House should be left alone - though I did wonder, briefly, if it could be set in the 1950s.

The 1950s bubbled-up again after I told Marianne I was going to look at Ibsen's later plays. In these symbolist works, ageing artists attempt to navigate the expansive landscapes of the soul, and are forever threatened by avalanches, real and imagined. They are challenging pieces, and two of them, Little Eyolf and When We Dead Awaken, are rarely performed. One day in September 2006 I found myself reading John Wyndham's The Midwich Cuckoos, in which a green and pleasant Fifties England is threatened by a strange new outside force that undermines her self-confidence. Soon after, I put fingers to the keyboard. The scene was a kitchen fitted with fancy appliances, in a house not far from the sea. A white woman, Rita, was reading Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids. A black boy, George, entered and told her he'd just seen a crone called the Rat Wife. Rita was a character by Ibsen, from Little Eyolf. George was my own creation.

Various things about this scenario would change over the following months, but at that point the important thing was that I had two characters who were interacting with each other. The source was Eyolf, but the time was 1955, and the place, England. I gave Rita a new surname and Mrs Affleck was born. By the end of the year I'd completed a rough first draft of act one. I emailed it to Marianne.

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